As America tries to change its attitude about energy sources and consumption, it is imperative that government keep up — not just in terms of regulations but in guiding the populace.
After all, what is leadership — or governance for that matter — other than guidance? We are not talking about a new nanny-state where people are preached to daily about the mores of a smaller carbon footprint. How about if government started the process with just a little old-fashioned information and some accompanying suggestions?
There was a growing sense of panic in Nashville and surrounding Middle Tennessee counties last week that hit a crescendo Friday around lunchtime. The problem — the region was clearly running out of gasoline.
Filling station after station sat with cellophane bags draped over pump handles. Angry motorists — many of them working class folks — sat idly in long lines that stretched down city blocks waiting for their turn at gas stations lucky enough to have product.
At that point, it was not a matter of people senselessly “hoarding” gas in most cases. It was more a simple need to get somewhere — to pick up kids from school, make it to work or to commute back to a donut county.
There was a great deal of speculation as to the problem keeping the gas out of Nashville but very few answers. Essentially, the lack of gas was a weather problem. Hurricane Ike took out the power for many oil refineries in the Galveston, Texas area. The Colonial Pipeline from Texas pumps most of the gas Middle Tennessee uses, and its supply was down as refineries were off-line.
Gasoline has slowly started to make its way back to Middle Tennessee pumps. The question now is: What have we as a community learned from this mess?
Let’s start with a lesson for governments both state and local. Government does not need to treat gasoline availability like a market issue. Government needs to stay on top of the gasoline availability issue and communicate at length with the public when a shortfall is anticipated.
Last week, Gov. Phil Bredesen’s office rolled out an explanation late Friday, which read like an admonition to essentially “stay calm.” What was needed was for some arm of Tennessee government to be more aware than the general populace that this kind of shortage of a very essential commodity was going to happen. The next step would then be to over-communicate the facts to people directly and to the media.
Metro Nashville government should follow suit. Mayor Karl Dean also came out with a statement over the weekend, long after the fear had already set into folks about gas availability and true hoarding had begun.
The lesson for government is that nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of good, proactive information from our elected leaders on this kind of crisis people will simply do what feels safe and prudent. That may not always be the right answer.
It is all too likely this kind of issue will become more a fact of modern life and not less of one. Our world is changing in its disposition toward energy consumption, which is a very positive thing. At the same time, current energy sources are becoming scarcer and now subject to the whims of natural disasters.
As the topography of the country’s energy needs changes, we must keep in mind government cannot be all things to all people. Government cannot make gasoline exist that does not exist. At the same time, as government does with many other issues, it should include fuel availability as one of the factors it watches on our behalf.