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Daze of My Life/Big Oil? Big Problem

by Kenneth B. Lourie

Not being the least bit aware - or educated - about what really goes on behind closed doors in corporate America, I can only imagine, and poke fun at, in this column, anyway, how the oil companies, the suppliers of our gasoline and home heating oil, must be coping with the extraordinary amounts of dollars, credit card-receipts and debit card-transactions, that the nearly 50-percent increase in the cost of gasoline, since last summer, has caused to gush into their coffers.
The oil companies are hardly short of cash. Quite the contrary. In fact, given the new higher-than-theyíve-ever-been gasoline prices, how are these companies actually handling all that money? I mean, since more money is needed to buy the same amounts of gasoline as before, and there arenít any new higher dollar denominations that weíre accustomed to using, itís only logical to assume that the actual physical number of paper bills and metal coins - from cash customers, anyway - must be astronomically astounding. My concern is - how are the oil companies able to count all that money and still maintain their cost-effectiveness?
If the same number of employees are doing the counting now as were counting last summer, than theyíre counting a lot more bills, approximately 50-percent more. If so, do these employees all of a sudden have 50-percent more time this year than last? Probably not. Could they be 50-percent more efficient in June of í04 than they were in June of í03? Unlikely. So, if the same number of employees are working at generally the same pace as they were 12 months ago - when the average price of self-serve regular was approximately $1.35 - again I ask, how are these mere mortals counting all this money?
And if theyíre not able to count all the money in a timely and predictable fashion, then how are their employers - the oil companies we all know and love - going to know how much money they have to spend on research and development or whether they can afford to hire new staff to assess, allocate, project manage, review and account for all the money that is available for their use and selfless non-abuse? They canít, and thatís my concern.
Similarly, with respect to non-cash transactions - credit and/or debit cards - isnít it also logical to believe that there are either more transactions than ever before, for the customers who buy a fixed $20 worth of gasoline per visit, or that the total dollars from all these transactions are so high, the oil companies computers canít digest them - sort of like the much anticipated Y2K crunch - because their accounting programs can calculate only billions, not trillions, or in this example, zillions?
And itís not their fault. Their software simply wasnít designed to figure dollars in these amounts. Nor was their hardware designed to print so many numbers from so many transactions. If true, the result would be a mechanical meltdown and software crash of such epic proportions that their fully integrated systems of checks and more checks would collapse under the weight of profits and margins and a sea of currency never seen before.
Then there would be a total shutdown of our economy and an ensuing financial disaster that would make the Great Depression seem like an anxiety attack. Unless the oil companies find a way to count and safely computerize all this gasoline money more efficiently without resorting to draconian measures - which would cause the price of gasoline to spiral even more out of control - I worry that the only place Iíll be driving to is the poorhouse.
Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.

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