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Orange County | DANA PARSONS

$3-a-Gallon Gas Not All It Was Pumped Up to Be

July 27, 2001|DANA PARSONS

Remember when you first heard about $3-a-gallon gas?

Just like "Jurassic Park III," it was coming this summer and would scare us all to death.

I saw "Jurassic Park" the other night and wasn't scared. I'd seen it all before.

Two days later, I went to a Costco on Garden Grove Boulevard and saw gasoline selling for $1.40 a gallon. So much for that fright. Come to think of it, I'd seen that all before too.

On the trip out there, I passed a few of the major oil companies, selling regular unleaded for anywhere from $1.60 a gallon to $1.74.

Ho-hum. Another gas crisis averted.

When it comes to energy crises, I never buy into them. The specter of $3 for gas never worried me. Just didn't believe it. Rolling blackouts? Didn't believe in them, either.

The Thursday noontime scene at Costco would have served as the quintessential "What crisis?" scene.

Cars were lined up at the pumps in rows five and six deep. A Costco employee stood in the parking lot area leading to the pumps, directing traffic as if he were at the Orange County Fair.

He couldn't take time to talk to me. Minutes later, another Costco employee strolled out to ask me what I was doing. I told him I wanted to talk about cheap gas, but he said employees weren't allowed to discuss it. Nor would he let me go talk to people waiting in line to gas up. He said I could talk to a company official.

Why Costco gas prices are the equivalent of state secrets, I don't know. But, the young employee politely told me that the rules are the rules.

I fought the impulse to leave the premises immediately and go get a sandwich but instead drifted to an adjoining parking lot to prey on unsuspecting Costco members. All I wanted to know was whether they ever took the threat of $3 gas seriously.

"I think someone was manipulating the price, if you want to know the truth," said Patricia Madigan of Anaheim as she unloaded groceries into her Toyota truck. "It's like this electricity thing we're going through."

That's my thinking too. Maybe that's an excuse for not trying to figure these things out, but I figured we were hit with the three-dollar scare to make prices around $2 seem more palatable.

Likewise for Ken and Charlyn Oinas, Costco members vacationing in Orange County from Prescott, Ariz. "I didn't think it [the $3 figure] was real," Ken Oinas said. He and his wife were bypassing the long lines at the nearby pumps but said they'd take advantage later. "In Corona the other day, the line was a lot longer," Oinas said.

When the couple left Prescott a week ago, the Costco price there was $1.28 a gallon. Oinas thinks the threat of price spikes is a strategy but confesses to not knowing how the game works.

"It's just like these rolling blackouts," he said. "Now, you see they got their raise for electricity and, oh, we have surplus energy . . . and we're in good shape for the future."

The invisible hand is never more invisible than when it comes to controlling our energy supplies. It's only natural that many of us become conspiracy theorists.

Trilby Lundberg publishes the Lundberg Letter, a petroleum industry newsletter based in Camarillo. I phoned to ask her whatever happened to $3 gas, and she replied, "You have delighted me with that question."

I told her about the Costco prices, and she noted with some pride that the Lundberg Letter never took seriously the specter of gas for $3 a gallon.

That figure was the product of "a consultant or two, a politician or two, a pundit or two," she said. Many factors congealed to prevent gas going that high, she said, saving particular credit for the industry.

She's expected to say that, but that's OK. As long as gas is affordable, I, like most consumers, don't care who gets the credit.

Then, Lundberg had to go and dampen my spirits. "So, we could never have $3-a-gallon gas?" I asked.

"Of course, we could," she said.

"But not any time soon."

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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