When I was fifteen years old, I was employed as a gas station attendant. The job was simple and honest. I would sit alone in a kiosk until a car drove up, at which point I would run out to my island of diesel, propane, and gasoline pumps. While I checked engine fluid levels, filled gas tanks, and cleaned windows, I participated in the brief small talk that happens during these simple transactions.
The gas station was a transient but essential stop on the way to people’s ultimate destinations. Drivers rushing to the airport, a job interview, a school exam, or a wedding all exuded the same purpose: I am here because I need to get somewhere. On one occasion, a man pulled in saying his wife was in labour and they needed gas to get to the hospital. I gave him fuel and told him to pay me later. It was on occasions like this that it became apparent to my young mind that without fuel, people couldn’t move forward.
On a few occasions the station ran out of fuel. Those days were filled with interactions where frantic or incredulous adults would say to me “But I need gas, and this is a gas station,” and all I could do was to reply, “Sorry, we don’t have any.” People accustomed to having immediate access to fuel found it an outrage bordering on an insult to be denied this simple trade.
Fortunately, this rarely happened, because each night prior to closing I recorded the pumps’ daily volumes and measured the levels of the underground storage tanks. When the volumes were low, an order was put in for more. I lived on an island, so all of our fuel came from a refinery on the mainland. Tanker trucks of propane, diesel, or gasoline were loaded onto ocean-going vessels, and eventually these trucks would fill up the station’s storage tanks. Growing up where I did made it easy to understand that raw materials are produced far from markets and distribution centers.
Producing no oil and gas ourselves necessitated the investment in and building of extensive transportation, storage and processing facilities. As complex as this system was, it all functioned smoothly because every party benefited by trading, and they were all free to do so. Oil producers benefited by selling crude, pipeline companies benefited by transporting it, refiners benefited by upgrading it, and retail distributors made enough money to pay a 15-year-old kid to facilitate the final transaction. Ultimately, motorists used the fuel to pursue their values.
The Keystone XL pipeline is another integral part of this system. Unlike the relationships above, in which consenting individuals traded value for value, two men have now inserted themselves into these matters, wielding immense power. Today, a thumbs up from John Kerry and President Obama acknowledges that you are free to move forward and trade, whereas a thumbs down dictates that you are not.