THE FILLING STATION – Old timers used to call these places “service stations,” a place where they drove up and some guy would fill up the gas tank, wipe off the windshield and inquire if the driver needed oil, water, the ashtray emptied or the latest news, then the attendant would take the money (25 cents a gallon). Today we drive up to the pumps and do everything ourselves including using our credit card to pay for the gas ($3.95 a gallon). But soon even that will change, and for advice we turn to that noted sage, philosopher and futurist, Jay Leno, who owns approximately 286 vehicles (169 cars and 117 motorbikes). On CNBC he said, “Electric is the future.” Leno went on to explain why, ending with: “So there’s almost no reason to have a gas car unless, you know, you’re doing long-haul duty.”
The number of electric cars worldwide has risen to 3.2 million, as of the beginning of 2018. Some 1.2 million are on the roads in China, followed by 750,000 in the U.S. Among the states, California leads with the most registered electric vehicles, and the state is home to nearly half of the country’s plug-in cars. The State of Washington holds second place with more than 3 per 1,000 vehicles registered being electric. Still, those cars only make up just 1.5 percent of all U.S. auto sales. There are now around 5,000 electric cars registered in Texas, and that number is expected to grow to nearly 100,000 by 2023. This may be terrible news for the oil-and-gas industry in Texas and especially Houston. But every exhaust cloud has a golden lining, because it seems the Lone Star State has figured how to turn a buck on this major threat to its economy.
According to a Houston company, Navigant Research, which maintains an eye on such data to help the power and utilities industry keep up with changing times, the main reason more electric cars are being bought in Texas is due to a comprehensive network of public charging stations in urban areas. So the more charging stations are built, the more Texans will feel they won’t be stuck at midnight on the West Loop with a dead battery. And who is putting in all these stations? Utility companies.
Texas allows utilities to operate their own public electric-car charging stations. NRG (as in the stadium) operates the eVgo charging network, which as 17 stations in Houston and 23 in the Dallas-Fort Worth areas. Nissan, which makes the electronic Leaf, is subsidizing the eVgo network in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas, allowing Leaf owners to charge for free and avoid the flat monthly fee other eVgo users pay. In San Antonio, CPS Energy has entered the field because it believes electric cars will offset air pollution in the area. In our environmental-friendly capital city, Austin Energy has gone a step further. It is the only one of the utilities to rely exclusively on renewable energy sources — specifically wind and solar — for its charging stations. Texas views itself as the land of no-regulations and a free market, but, due to the car dealers’ lobby, Tesla Motors is forbidden from making direct-sales to customers, so Tesla has five fast-charging stations in the state, with plans for more.
OK, that’s fine for the utility companies, but what about the Texas oil and gas industry and its overseer, the Texas Railroad Commission? In fiscal year 2018, the oil and natural gas industry supported more than 348,000 direct jobs in Texas and paid a bit over $14 billion in state and local taxes for schools, roads and first responders. Our vast petrochemical industry will still need oil to turn out stuff we use from sunglasses to flip flops, running shoes, umbrellas, panty hose, shoe polish, bulletproof Kevlar vests and those awful plastic bags that litter the countryside. Indeed, all those utility companies that are betting on electric cars will still need fuel to power their generators. Texas leads the nation in both the production and use of energy. But wind and solar panels only provide less than a third of Texas energy, so we must not feel too sorry for the awl bidness, as we wildcatters say.
As for the Railroad Commission of Texas, it was established in 1891, making it the oldest regulatory agency in the state and one of the oldest of its kind in the nation. The Legislature passed: “An Act to Provide for the Inspection of Refined Oils Which Are the Product of Petroleum, and Which May Be Used for Illuminating Purposes Within This State, and to Regulate the Sale and Use Thereof, and to Provide Penalties for the Violation of Same.” Today the commission has virtually nothing to do with railroads or anything used for illumination purposes, and just rides herd on the oil and gas industry. (It recently announced it has assessed $864,689 in fines against violating operators and businesses. Hehehe.)
Still, what about all those mom-and-pop convenience stores that get much of their business selling gas along with Texas-shaped ashtrays and stale candy? They can start selling electricity – and fresher candy. An old idea: We turn filling stations back into service stations. Bring back our petroleum history. We rename the Houston Texans the Houston Oilers. (While we’re at it, bring back Jay Leno.) We put wind-driven propellers on the derricks and watch the money flow in. Gives a whole new meaning to the term, “Spindletop.” There is still work for the Texas Railroad Commission. There used to be a law requiring all trains running through Texas to fly the Lone Star flag. See if that’s still the law and, if so, start enforcing it – and open a flag shop. Once Houston’s slogan was, “Where 23 Railroads Meet The Sea.” That event must have made a huge splash. Today we only have one passenger train. Commissioners, find out what ever happened to the other 22.
Ashby fills up at email@example.com