Panic Buying and Rationing on the Downslope

A recent cyberattack briefly shut down the Colonial Pipeline, a pipeline carrying transportation fuels and natural gas on the East Coast of the US.   It raised gasoline prices, and caused a run on supplies as panic buying kicked in and gas stations sold out.  An Axios article notes that the shutdown and run on fuel has pushed the nationwide average gasoline price to its highest level since the fall of 2014. But gasoline is still priced too low, since it does not include the social and environmental costs (which economists refer to as “externalities”).

A surprising number of gas stations have been out of fuel, including 55% of stations in Virginia and 49% in Georgia. Lines at gas stations are rare in the U.S. aside from the immediate aftermath of hurricanes etc., although those extreme weather events are becoming more frequent as well.  Personally I wasn’t affected because I started leasing a Chevy Bolt last March.  Those and other electric vehicles have been coming down in price, and the convenience of driving past long gas lines adds to their allure.

It is important to note a major caveat to electric vehicles: the question of availability of certain raw materials to replace the entire fleet of ICE cars with electric cars.  There is also rightful concern that an overemphasis on vehicular techno-solutions could result in neglecting to push hard for more public transport use, walking and cycling, and reducing overall travel.

Beyond buying your own electric vehicle, or riding your bike or taking other forms of transportation, the cyberattack and economic fallout is just another reminder of the need for a systemic solution to transportation climate emissions.  About 15 years ago FEASTA proposed the Cap & Share concept to limit supply (of GHG emissions from fossil fuels), and then meet demand with “shares” that are given to people, or by auctioning permits and returning the funds to people to help them deal with the rising prices.  A conceptual Cap and Share for Gasoline could function as proposed on the Fuel Share website, which I set up several years ago.  The original motivation was to address climate change, but maybe it would be appropriate for pipeline-cyberattack/panic-buying situations too.

Fuel Share, or Cap & Share for Gasoline, would also address social justice and inequality issues that arise in sudden panic buying situations.  Without an equitable rationing system, low-income people and others are always left out.

We as a society must restrict the sales of fossil fuels over time to slow climate change.  An equitable “shares” system to ease the transition could help in short term dislocations like the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack as well.

Featured image: Line at a gas station, 1979. Source:,_June_15,_1979.jpg

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