Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Buddy, can you spare a gallon of gasoline?

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Listen to Jay Leno if you want to know what's really on Americans' minds. The lantern-jawed host of NBC's Tonight show had a good line the other night. "President Bush has announced his new fitness plan to get people walking again. It's called, 'Gasoline at $3 a gallon.'"

And, referring to immigration, the other current bugbear: "Given how expensive gas is, today I saw a van with 50 legal Americans inside it."

But the laugh is bitter. At this time of year the price of gas (petrol to you and me) generally climbs higher, just before the start of the US "summer driving season" that kicks off on Memorial Day at the end of May. Schools are out, and families get in their cars to head off on holiday.

This year however, this annual ritual will be unprecedentedly expensive, with the national average price hovering just below the $3 mark.

Now compared with European countries, that is no big deal. In the UK petrol is expected to breach the symbolic level of £1 a litre soon, translating into $6.72 per US gallon (which is four-fifths of Britain's imperial gallon).

Nonetheless, in the US it feels as if we've been hitting symbolic marks every other day. Not that long ago, a gallon of gas cost barely $1. Then it climbed to $1.50. Then it sped past $2 and briefly topped $3 after Hurricane Katrina last September. At $6.72, it's been said, there'd be revolution.

Last week, the cable TV channels reported how hard-pressed workers were having to pawn their worldly goods to buy gasoline. In the meantime, presidential aspirants (among them Hillary Clinton) rail against the evil oil companies that ride the public misery to make record profits and pay chief executives such as Lee Raymond of Exxon Mobil $70m (£39m) a year.

The airwaves are full of reassuring pundits, explaining about technical difficulties with ethanol - the increasingly widely used gasoline additive derived from corn - and lingering refinery shutdowns in the Gulf of Mexico after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Don't worry, they say; by September things will have calmed down.

But that is five months off, and the public isn't buying it. The latest CNN poll found that Americans regard the price of gasoline as the third most important problem facing the country - behind Iraq and illegal immigration, but ahead of Iran's chase after a nuclear bomb.

All this spells more trouble for a certain former oil man named George W Bush. The President knows there's nothing he can do about ethnic strife in oil-producing Nigeria or soaring demand for oil in China and India. Nor dare he twist the arm of the battered US car industry to make more fuel-efficient vehicles, or embrace serious conservation measures. But he must act as if he's in command - hence assurances that "the White House is watching the situation closely". But, I fancy, Americans are starting to lose the belief that they have a God-given right to cheap gasoline for all eternity. Deep down, they know that every long-term oil-price indicator points upward.

At last, basic economic laws are starting to bite. Experts have long argued about what level the gas price would have to reach before Americans start to use less - $3 may well be that point. The American Petroleum Institute has just reported that gasoline consumption dropped by 0.6 per cent from April 2005, when it cost 60 cents a gallon less. And who knows, one day it may even hit $6.72 a gallon.

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