Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 1, 2012

Pump prices spur wish for shorter commute, alternative to gasoline

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — I love my present home near Princeton, but now I’m wishing it was closer to the offices of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. This wish gets stronger every time the prices at the gas pump creep up.

Going to and from work is about a 23-mile round trip. Do this five times a week, and I’m looking at 115 miles that need gas. I know that’s a modest trip compared to some commutes, but it’s one almost every working person needs to make every day. Some of us are able to take the bus, but for many people, it’s not practical. For instance, there are many times when I have to get in my car and drive to a meeting, a press conference, a fire or other news as it’s happening. My reporter colleagues and I never know where we might be driving on any given day. We might never leave the office or we might drive a couple of hundred miles. Fortunately, the Telegraph compensates us for our mileage.

To compensate, I’ve been keeping my off-hours driving under control. Some days, especially the weekends, that means no driving at all. I try to do my grocery shopping and other chores while driving home from work, but that’s not always easy when I have a late shift. I know it can’t be any easier for other commuters, especially when making time for errands is difficult.

When I go out in public and ask people about how gas prices are affecting their daily routines, they say it will have an impact. The impact is even harder when they work for minimum wage. I remember one woman who said she changed jobs because traveling to and from work was costing her more than what she was earning. Filling up the gas tank was taking all of her earnings.

There are times when I wish I could take the bus to and from work. I’ve ridden the local buses while doing stories about public transportation, and the fellow passengers and the drivers have always been friendly and helpful. The fare is certainly less than paying for gasoline, too. Unfortunately, as I’ve said before, I need my car for work. I’m also not on a nice, neat nine-to-five schedule. The news dictates when I arrive for work and when I leave. I’d end up spending the night in the office because I couldn’t reach the bus stop on time. Whether I like it or not, I’ve got to use my car. This gets me wondering about alternatives to gasoline.

Sometimes I think I would like an electric car, but then I wonder how much it would cost me to plug it up like a cell phone every night. Heating a home generates a big power bill, so how much of a bill would I get after plugging up my car? Would I really be better off?

Vehicles powered by natural gas is an interesting idea. I’ve seen a couple of them while doing stories about that fuel alternative, but it never really seemed to take off. I think a lot of the problem comes from the fuel storage; the fuel tank literally filled up the trunk of a big sedan, and there were not that many places where you could refuel.

Another alternative that’s interesting is coal liquefaction, or turning coal into gasoline. The Germans pioneered this technique during World War II when Allied bombing kept wrecking their oil supplies. I think it even inspired a movie during the 1970s called “The Formula.” In that movie and book, the German formula was a big secret, but that’s not really true.

After winning the war, the Allies took it along with the V-2 rockets and jet engines the Germans had made; but pumping oil out of the ground was cheaper than converting coal to gasoline, so the technology never really moved forward. With hope, the right technology and business backing will come along to make coal liquefaction practical. In our part of the country, coal wouldn’t have to travel very far to the conversion plant; there’s no reason such a plant couldn’t operate in West Virginia and Virginia. That should be a cost savings right there, plus it would generate jobs for the region.

Until new technologies and new fuel sources are available, we will have to keep conserving gas any way we can do it. I try to keep my tires properly inflated and make sure my car’s oil is changed regularly. I also try not to carry too much stuff in my car’s trunk. Toting too much extra weight can really add to the price you pay for driving. My neighbor took this a step  further by getting herself a new car; her older model was costing her too much at the gas pump, so she traded it in for a more fuel-efficient car.

With hope, gasoline prices will start going back down when tempers quit flaring in the Middle East and international oil markets lose their case of the jitters. Like it or not, we have to visit the gas station for the same reason we have to visit the grocery store. It’s a necessity we can’t avoid. All we can do is try to limit the number of trips we take to the pump.

Greg Jordan is a senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at