April 25, 2008 03:32 PM ET Marianne Lavelle
How would you like to pay $1,000 for a fill-up at the gas station? If you drive a truck, you could well be forking over that kind of money a few times a week. The nation's average price of diesel fuel has ratcheted up 24 percent since the start of the year to $4.14 per gallon—that's up 45 percent over a year ago.
The price of oil may be annoyance or hardship for most of us, but it is an outright threat to the livelihoods of many of the people who bring us our food, clothing, electronics, and toys. If you find yourself behind slow-moving trucks on the interstate, flying the American flag, or if you see a convoy of rigs making their way around the streets of Washington, D.C., on Monday, it's the truck drivers' call for help.
Driver Michael "J.B." Schaffner, one of the organizers of a rally planned at the Capitol on April 28, says he's looking for one thing from lawmakers: "To care about the people that employ them. To start listening more than they have been, and start reacting." Schaffner, who was forced by fuel prices to give up driving his own rig last year and now drives for a small company, has heard it said that the market sets the price of oil, and that there's little Congress can do. "They can hide behind that all they want," he says. But he thinks there's plenty that they can do, including such things as taking away Big Oil tax breaks, opening up more U.S. areas for drilling, and getting petroleum alternatives to market.
Schaffner and his brother are getting the word out about the rally through their website, The American Driver, which had 2 million visitors in just the past month (compared with about 1 million visitors all last year.) Another truck driver and rally organizer, Mark Kirsch, says that many of the site visitors are not other drivers, but just other citizens and consumers like them, who are also feeling the pinch. "My paycheck hasn't doubled or tripled in the last year, but with food, fuel, heating oil—everything else has," he says.
While small truckers like Schaffner and Kirsch try to make their voices heard in their way, the big trucking companies also are asking the federal government to act. The American Trucking Association was on Capitol Hill this week asking for a release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Swift Transportation Vice President Dave Berry said that although the SPR doesn't have enough oil to permanently alter supplies, "We believe strategic releases...could temporarily increase the supply of crude oil and hopefully help restore rational behavior to the petroleum markets. This type of government intervention could drive speculators out of the market and help ensure that petroleum prices are once again driven by supply and demand."
Whether we know it or not, we all are paying for that $1,000 fill-up at the gas station. From the first quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2008, the price that trucking companies charge to haul freight increased 4.8 percent, the American Trucking Association says. That's just about what the increase in food prices were in the first quarter of 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "We are very concerned that out-of-control energy prices will greatly magnify our current economic slowdown and delay our economic recovery," Berry testified.
Schaffner puts it another way, "It's the biggest vicious cycle I've ever seen in my life."