The Georgia Gas Crisis: The Experts Lie About “Topping Off”

Posted: March 21, 2009 in Politics
Tags: , , ,

Georgia is suffering short supplies of gasoline this week and last, and the idea that I might not find enough fuel to get to work has been a little frightening. But as in any other crisis, this one serves as a background to highlight how stupid some people can be.

From the USA Today:

The pipelines that supply the region are operating at less than normal capacity, due largely to storm-related power outages at Texas refineries, said Kenneth Medlock, energy fellow at the Baker Institute, a non-partisan public policy think tank at Rice University in Houston.

“In isolation, neither of these storms would have been that big a deal, because there’s enough inventory (at stations) to make up the shortfall,” said Medlock. “But there was a three- to four-week period of refinery capacity not operating. That’s basically a month when nothing’s being produced.”

Panic buying — drivers topping off every time they happen across a station that actually has gas — made the problem worse, said Marylee Booth, executive director of the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association.

“If people saw a tanker drive up to a station, they’d start lining up. The panic has died down. It’s getting a little better every day.”

From WJBF News Channel 6 Reporter Joy Howe:

…experts say all of this mess is over when we, the consumers say it is… topping off does not help the problem.

Dr. Mark Thompson, ASU Association Professor of Economics: “When you’re at half a tank, you really don’t need it… Put it into perspective for the person who is at that quarter of a tank or the red light is on. You want when you’re at that point to be able to get gas, so don’t take somebody else’s gas when you’re at that half tank.”

“Topping off” does not, mathematically, affect gas supply. That is just ignorant. I’m angered by Dr. Thompson’s implication that the crisis is entirely the fault of the consumers. Ms. Booth is equally wrong if she thinks it “made the problem worse”, unless she’s only referring to the problem of long lines at the pump. The shortage is a real problem; long lines are just an inconvenience. But the shortage has not gotten worse due to people topping off their tanks.

Imagine a restaurant with two banquet tables and a banquet that is expected to go on for hours. The waitress at one table fills each diner’s water glass only when the glass is nearly empty. The waitress at the other table tops each water glass after every sip. Assuming both tables are equally thirsty, which waitress runs out of water first?

The waitress who tops off after each sip will be much busier, her activity giving the appearance of greater need, but the amount of water poured depends entirely on consumption – the rate of depletion – not the frequency of refill. Each waitress will run out of water at the same rate over the course of the banquet.

When the dinner guests begin to stash water in their purses, salt shakers and soup bowls in the expectation that the waitress will fail to serve their table – that’s hoarding, and it does directly affect the availability of resources.

I have heard several (badly researched) news reports claiming that this shortage is being made worse because drivers are filling up when they “really don’t need it.” Topping off makes the lines at gas stations longer, but does not actually cause gas to run out sooner. It’s the clowns like the woman Carol saw Wednesday night last week filling up milk jugs and orange juice cartons that are causing the problems. It’s the idiots who have not changed their consumption habits during this shortage. But most of all, it’s the lack of supply that’s created this mess.

So hold your nose, fill up when it’s convenient, and in a few weeks we’ll have all forgotten what the big deal was, anyway.

Monday September 29, 2008 – 10:32am (EDT)

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