Little Details (Sept. 4, 2008)

Got oil?

Sept. 4, 2008
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

It’s the morning commute. My daughter heads off to meet a friend, wheels turning under her own power. My husband straps on a reflective vest and pedals toward Mountain View Road en route to work. Clean clothes and a paper-strewn desk await his arrival for another day at the office.

It’s my day off. Errands require trips to the bank, copy shop and Dick’s Sporting Goods for fuzzy yellow tennis balls. I ate a few too many buttery cookies yesterday, stressing over summer’s end. Do I drive or hop onto my own person-powered two-wheeler? I choose the latter option for Mother Earth — and my waistline.

Gas is $3.669 per gallon. ExxonMobil is realizing record profits. The Saudis are indulging in a few extra frothy lattes at Starbucks in Riyadh, toasting America’s addiction to oil. General Motors announced plant closures in Ohio, Wisconsin, Canada and Mexico. A shift in strategy, prompted by the surge in oil prices, means GM models like the Yukon, Tahoe and Suburban roll off assembly lines and into vehicular history. Compact cars, the ones that sip — not gulp — gasoline, are king. Big and bloated is out. Small, sprightly, and fuel efficient is in.

Lest I risk sounding holier than thou, I admit to owning an SUV, albeit a smaller one. I love my Honda CRV, all 150,000-plus miles of it. I bought it as a “defensive driving” strategy in 1999, when American highways seemed overwhelmingly populated with imposing SUVs towering over my humble Corolla, complete with a strapped-in toddler. News reports warned of the high death rates in sedans crumpled by much taller, heavier SUVs. I didn’t want to be crushed by an overly aggressive Hummer.

Buying a larger (i.e., taller) car seemed the prudent thing to do. It would keep my family safer, I reasoned. The spiffy folding camping table that came with the CRV was a nice perk. Gas prices were low enough that I paid only casual attention to the miles per gallon rating.

Lately, our CRV sits in the garage most days and will continue to until the snow flies. My husband’s ancient pick-up truck blew a gasket last spring. We donated the body and got in line for a hybrid. We zip around in that little silver bullet running errands not easily accomplished on a bicycle.

Is there a silver lining to the astronomical oil prices affecting everything from transportation to food to plastics? We are all feeling the pinch, some folks precariously more so than others. Many of us are driving less. Some folks will button up their homes more tightly and reach for a sweater before the thermostat as temperatures fall. We are all faced with the reality that the oil tap might run dry.

LIHEAP, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, provides fuel assistance for life-saving heating and cooling. I once served on a committee monitoring LIHEAP disbursement in Vermont. I learned the program was funded, in part, by something called PVE, or Petroleum Violation Escrow, funds.

The oil embargo of 1973, an event that sent oil prices soaring, prompted the federal government to enhance regulation, introducing temporary price caps. I remember waiting in long lines with my dad at the gas pump. We could only fill our tank on certain days, based on our license plate configuration.

PVE monies were generated from fines paid by oil companies that engaged in price gouging during the embargo period. It seemed an especially sweet brand of justice that greedy violators were required to bankroll a fund to pay for fuel assistance and weatherization programs.

Although there’s been a recent drop in oil prices, fueled in part by a reduction in American consumption, costs remain prohibitively high for many. I hope folks at ExxonMobil and their competitors take the high road and stay honest. If not, that PVE account could always use another infusion of cash.

Note: If you feel you may need fuel assistance, contact the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (, 863-6248) to submit an application as soon as possible. A fuel assistance fund, like oil, is a limited commodity.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or