Gas prices are nothing to complain about

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Karin Winegar
Karin Winegar: People act as though they have a constitutional right to cheap and plentiful fossil fuels.
Photo courtesy Karin Winegar

Karin Winegar is a St. Paul journalist and author.

It's time to be indignant about indignation. Each time gas prices rise, shrieks are heard in the land as if somewhere in the Constitution there's a right to cheap and plentiful fossil fuels.

We've been warned for decades about relying on petroleum for our personal transportation, and people are still furious when it happens — again! Threats against President Obama (who announced recently that he will buy a Chevy Volt in five years, when he's no longer president) follow.

Electric cars were created over a century ago, along with cars powered by gas, kerosene and steam, but were subsumed by our collective intoxication with cheap gas. The intoxication has been aided by the mighty oil and gas industry, which spent more than $146 million lobbying Congress last year, according to the League of Conservation Voters.

Is gas really more expensive? Not very, when prices are adjusted for inflation. But Americans, many of whom are more familiar with the price per gallon of gas than with their own blood pressure or cholesterol levels, are outraged.

Without assessing who or what is to blame, or the mysterious coincidence that gas prices (set by the quite conservative oil industry) are elevated in this election year, I suggest we finally get past our need for it.

First, I bought a battery-powered lawn mower: no more smelly, loud, messy gas and oil. No more yanking starting cords and cursing. No more roar. It is like vacuuming the lawn.

Then I watched hybrid cars over the past decade or so as they morphed from homely legless waterbugs to something more attractive. Finally, I bought one. Two years ago I let loose of my dear, dusty 1998 Camry with 210,000 miles on its odometer. It was still humming along, and is now serving a college student somewhere, I hear. I am gliding around in a bluebird-blue Prius purchased for a modest price out of a car rental fleet that was turning over.

As far as I can tell, that's all any urban or suburban dweller needs unless he or she has to haul a load of lumber, plow a field or transport more than four kids. It is famously quiet and comfortable and has a 11.9-gallon gas tank. When I drive conscientiously, I get mileage in the high 40s. Once I managed to reach 58 mpg. Not to mention the car's celebrated silence: I can sneak up on wildlife, pull over to watch swans on a pond, deer in a meadow or wild turkeys under a bird feeder.

There is no downside I can see except that, about once a week or so, I find someone tailgating me in a threatening way. It's usually drivers of pickup trucks, big American cars or SUVS, and the hostility in their glares is clear.

If I want to become even more liberated from gas — and I do — Shayna Berkowitz, co-founder of ReGo Electric Conversions in Minneapolis, can convert my Prius to electric for about $5,000 or so. St. Paul has an online list of charging stations and I have an outlet and extension cord in my back yard. And if I want to be purer and freer still, local solar companies offer a partially subsidized program to install roof panels to take care of all my kilowatt needs and sell the excess back to Xcel.

We can stop being victims of pump prices, stop desiring the next Ford Orc, Chevy Kraken or GMC Leviathan if what we drive is about function and not ego or nostalgia. We can wean our psyches from petroleum to lithium, from the vroom to the hush. Maybe even Toyota will stop making the Sequoia and start making the Bonsai.