Just a week after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, drivers across Texas are lining up at the gas pump over fears of fuel shortages.
But yesterday, a Texas energy official assured drivers that there wasn’t a fuel shortage. The problem is that too many people are trying to fill up their tanks at once.
Meg Jacobs, author of the book Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s, says President Trump’s decision to tap the U.S. Oil Reserve is meant to calm the public.
“For people who are experiencing shortages and gas lines in Texas, a sense of panic is fueled not just by potential short-term shortages but by the general sense of disruption and chaos as a result of Hurricane Harvey,” Jacobs says.
Jacobs says the problem is not about shortage, but about distribution.
“When you have a storm of this magnitude striking the heart of one of the country’s largest producing areas, that’s going to unsettle existing distribution and production facilities,” she says. “The difference from the 1970s is really profound because we’re operating from a position where prices are low and the supply of U.S. produced oil is high.”
One reason the panic has been so widespread is because of how heavily Americans rely on their cars.
“We’ve built a whole system largely since WWII that is reliant on highways and driving long distances,” she says.
It’s precisely when Americans sense a disruption to that system that panic ensues.
“The moment there is a possibility for reduction in their access to this vitally essential commodity, Americans start to go into a state of panic. Even with their tanks more than half full, will line up at the gas station,” she says.
Jacobs noted that photos and videos shared on social media make up a key difference between the long lines in Texas today and the oil crisis of the 1970s.
“We’ve seen on Twitter, for example, people posting pictures and reports live from the gas stations,” she said. “That sort of intensifies this crisis mentality.”
Besides addressing a shortage itself, Jacobs says decisions like President Trump’s to tap the oil reserve can affect the sense that there is a shortage.
“To release reserves from the strategic petroleum reserve is a significant act,” she says. “These kinds of acts are kind of meant to be a symbol of reassurance.”
Post by Rachel Zein.