PETROL PRICES DRIVE CHANGE
By ALEX EASTON
WHAT would you do with an extra $120 a fortnight?
That's how much money Lennox Head residents Natalie Black and Sue Thatcher reckon they each save on petrol bills by car-pooling to get to work at Lismore City Council every day instead of driving their own cars.
Ms Thatcher and Ms Black are part of a growing national trend as people search for ways to beat soaring petrol prices.
Figures from petrol price monitor Fueltrac show petrol prices in Lismore have roughly doubled since the organisation began monitoring in 1998.
Now, petrol prices have spiked again, this time because of a series of refinery shutdowns in the US that have forced the cost of TAPIS crude oil, on which Australia's fuel price is based, up to $66 a barrel.
The rising prices raise the spectre of last year's petrol price blitz, when unleaded petrol hit $1.55 per litre in Lismore, and the accompanying warnings that fuel could reach $2 per litre.
Those claims had come from the NRMA and Service Stations Association chief executive Ron Bowden.
Sydney media last year quoted Mr Bowden saying anyone who doubted petrol would reach $2 a litre was 'living in a fools paradise'.
"It's not that long ago that petrol was 70 cents a litre, and now it's doubled," Mr Bowden was quoted saying.
"With a diminishing supply what's to stop it doubling again?"
Mr Bowden was yesterday overseas on leave, and the association's acting chief executive Colin Long was reluctant to repeat the claim.
Mr Long agreed petrol prices were trending upwards, but said one-off events such as Cyclone Katrina in the US and the recent refinery shut-downs showed the sensitivity of the market, and the ability of prices to drop once such issues were resolved.
Either way, that means Northern Rivers residents face on-going high petrol prices in an area where many people do a near 100km round trip on country roads to get to work and back.
A spokeswoman for Transport Minister John Watkins said the solution was in strengthening the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission so it could force oil companies to keep prices down, and in improving the road network and public transport.
But for people like Ms Black and Ms Thatcher, the answer lies in sharing the cost of their ride to work with someone else.
They're not alone. Ballina Shire Council climate action project officer Skye McNamara said a survey of council staff had found nearly two-thirds were interested in car-pooling and the council was now setting up a program through non-profit carpooling website Ecarpool to encourage the practice.
"Car-pooling provides a costeffective and more sustainable mode of travel for those of us in regional areas that travel long distances to work and where public transport options just aren't available," Ms McNamara said.
Paul Hulskamp of Ecarpool said his organisation had recorded strong membership growth since starting four months ago, with some members claiming to save up to $2500 per year.
While cost was a big motivation, Mr Hulskamp said concern for the environment and a desire to reduce greenhouse gases was also a major concern for many members.