Last summer, a new gasoline station opened in South Elgin, an old farming village on the Fox River that's now being swallowed by the westward sprawl of Chicago.
As service stations go, it's an alpha establishment. A $3 million Marathon outlet with 24 digital pumps, a computerized carwash, a Goodfella's sandwich shop and a convenience store lit up like an operating room, it sells everything from ultra low sulfur diesel to herbal "memory enhancer" to Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Infrared sensors activate the faucets in its immaculate, white-tiled bathrooms. The coffee kiosk's floor is real hardwood.
Howard Dunbar's Tanker Truck 6 rolled into the station one chilly night last September. An amiable ex-cop, Dunbar drives for an independent fuel hauler. At 9:25 p.m., he stepped down from the cab, set out the safety cones, hooked up his hoses with a reassuring click, and then proceeded to unload 7,723 gallons of gasoline and diesel into the station's underground tanks.
It took Dunbar 29 minutes to empty his swimming pool-size cargo--a workaday chore that reveals the triumphs of our motorized civilization but also the seeds of its possible end.
The diesel streaked past a tiny glass porthole on the truck's hoses in a smear of pale yellow, like beer, while the premium unleaded ran colorless as vodka. That particular night, according to one industry method of calculating the explosive energy locked away in crude oil, Dunbar dumped the liquid equivalent of 19.2 million hours of physical labor into the Marathon's storage tanks--or the power of a slave army of 2,200 men working around the clock for a year. This bonanza would be sucked dry by customers in 24 hours, a small, stark example of the nation's awesome petroleum appetite at a time when the planet appears to be lurching into an energy crunch of historic proportions.
By now, most Americans realize that something is profoundly awry in the global oil patch.