I paid $1.97 a gallon for gasoline last week, driving away from a convenience store having filled my tank for something like $16.
For baby boomers like me, a price like that can seem simultaneously very pleasant, given spikes in mid-2008 and 2012 when gas cost close to $4 a gallon, and yet still kind of high.
But take the consumer price index into account and $1.97 a gallon looks very cheap, almost as low an inflation-adjusted price as has occurred over the past 50 years. Not the lowest, but close.
According to the Energy Information Association, which tracks energy prices among many other indexes, the average price of gasoline in 1970 (when I was a senior in high school and buying my own gas for the first time) was 35.7 cents a gallon nationwide.
Maybe it was lower in Texas, then as now, because of our proximity to the wells and the refineries. But let’s go with the national price for simplicity.
Using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, that 35.7 cents would be $2.19 in 2015 dollars. In other words, more than I paid the other day.
By that measure, 1980 (shortly after the 1979 Mideast oil crisis drove crude and gasoline prices up) was a tough year, with gas at $1.25 a gallon. Take that to 2015 using the inflation calculator and you have $3.61 a gallon.
By 1995, the average price had sagged slightly to $1.15. That equates to $1.80 a gallon in 2015, the lowest yearly average for those years since my 1970 benchmark.
However, there was a point in December 2008 — after the economy, the stock and labor markets, the McCain-Palin campaign and everyone’s 401(k) had collapsed — when a gallon of unleaded could be had for $1.45, or $1.60 in 2015 dollars.
This was just a few months after gas prices topped $4, or about $4.40 a gallon adjusted to 2015.
That rock-bottom 2008 price would amount to the thinnest of silver linings. If you had a job and some money and some place to go, you could get there for a ridiculously low amount — through traffic thinned by low employment.
The difference this time around, among others, is that these low prices are happening in a strong economy with relatively low unemployment figures (and choking, full-employment Austin traffic).
Anyone who’s been paying attention at all for the last few years will know why: the shale and fracking boom, with the bullish U.S. oil supplies suddenly injected into the market.
It took awhile for all of this to take effect, however. Texans were paying about a dollar a gallon more for gasoline a year ago.
Now, with oil prices stuck in the $45-a-barrel range because of a glut of crude available, prices at the pump correspondingly have fallen.
There was a point early this year when Austin traffic seemed to go from being merely frustrating and ever-present to instead intolerable and maddening.
The knee-jerk response was to simply blame all those newbies showing up, that famous 110-a-day influx we’re always hearing about.
But maybe, even as drivers are thankful for low gasoline prices, perhaps we should be throwing a little blame at $1.97 gas for further clogging the roads.
There was a point back in 2008, during that $4 a gallon phase, when I actually found myself looking at a trip across town in monetary terms.
OK, I’d say, that’s a 12-mile trip to go pick up that textbook or report my daughter accidentally left at home and bring it to school, then 12 miles back. About a gallon of gas for the car I had at the time. Or, to the point, a $4 trip.
And that manifested itself every week or so with galling $40 trips to the gas station or convenience store.
Now, with $2 gas, I no longer think in those terms. A trip exists in a sort of fiscal-free zone, which means there’s one less reason to avoid taking it. I suspect I’m far from the only person who might be going through a similar thought process.
The result, of course, is more driving.
Ben Wear writes for the Austin American-Statesman. firstname.lastname@example.org