Stealing Gas

After her tank was mysteriously depleted, the author arrived at the only solution: ditching her car. (Sort of.)

By Jessica A. Knoblauch

I’m not a typical New Yorker. I don’t drink coffee, I prefer neither the Mets nor the Yankees, and I can’t recite all the routes on the subway system. But what really sets me apart the most from other New Yorkers is that I own a car. I don’t use it much, which means that on most days it sits vacant on a side street, out of sight and out of mind. But recently I’ve come to suspect that someone else has been watching it pretty closely: the fuel gage mysteriously dropped from half full to empty during a week when I barely drove a mile.


When I first noticed the drooping arrow, I sought a reasonable explanation. Maybe the gas had evaporated over the extremely hot weekend. I tested this not-quite-hypothesis online, only to be immediately put off by a barrage of unclear user-generated answers riddled with spelling errors. Then I contemplated any possible metaphysical explanations, like maybe it was a sign from Mother Earth or some leaf-covered being telling me that I shouldn’t own a car at all. After all, I am an environmental journalist (sniff), and the hypocrisy of being a greenie with a car in such a public transpo-friendly city has stopped me short on occasion. But I don’t actually use my car. I just move it from one side of the street to the other to avoid tickets. Harmless, right? So what did Gaia have against me?

I must have been caught up in the meaning behind the disappearance — Occam’s Razor clearly pointed to theft as the most likely explanation — because it just seemed so outlandish that people would steal gas. In fact it seemed that gas would be one of the last things people would steal from a car (Sound system, rims?), but with fuel hovering at around $4.00 at the time the theft occurred, it should hardly have come as a surprise. The world is in an energy crisis that goes a lot deeper than what I pay at the pump, and a lot of Americans have been forced to choose between filling the tank and buying groceries. The decision between food and fuel has even sparked satirical webisodes. Humor aside, the percentage of income people spend on gasoline doubled between 2002 and 2007, from 1.9 percent to 3.8 percent — while income has flatlined

A conversation with my roommate, an NYC police officer, only heightened my suspicion that my gas had been filched after he hypothesized that under these conditions, gas stealing incidents would go up. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I figured, and the practice requires little more than a hose, a container, and a good dose of unflappable confidence; You Tubers have even made stealing gas easier with how-to guides. 

Still, I refused to believe it, so I did what any stubborn person would do — I started looking for evidence that would prove my roommate wrong. Much to my annoyance, a quick Google search turned up damning evidence that backed up my roommate’s hypothesis. Hard numbers on gas theft are difficult to come by, but an MSNBC article that highlighted incidents of illegal siphoning from Bethesda to Beaver Dam, WI. was especially detrimental to my case.

That did it. I was officially convinced my gas had been filched. Laws against siphoning are pretty weak in New York, (though one politician recently drafted a bill to make these types of gas crimes a felony), so I decided I needed to take matters into my own hands. Since stealing gas is a relatively low-risk undertaking (other than the off-chance you could ignite yourself), folks like me are pretty much on our own when it comes to safeguarding our fuel.

Recommendations of how to thwart gas thieves range from the obvious and impractical (avoid parking for long periods of time) to the obvious and expensive (park in a locked garage). Since neither option was available to me, I looked into purchasing a locking gas cap which, while not completely tamper-proof, is said to deter thieves. These handy devices range from $10 to $100, so at least somebody is benefiting from the rise is the cost of gasoline—locking cap companies have seen record sales recently.

The price was reasonable, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make the purchase. It didn’t seem fair that I should have to spend more money so people can’t steal from me. I’d rather take that $10 and donate it to a group lobbying for alternative energy, or give it to some entrepreneur who’s about to make the next giant step in lithium-ion batteries so that we can actually get out of this gas crisis, rather than make it easier to live with. Or maybe I’m just cheap.

I was out of options, and I knew it.  I decided to do something that felt unnatural, yet intellectually I understood made the most sense—and I probably should have done long ago. I decided to ditch my car.

No, I didn’t abandon it in a bad neighborhood with the doors unlocked and I didn’t donate it to charity. Instead, when the next long weekend came I booked a one-way flight to New York from Chicago and pointed my prized Chevy Cavalier west. Two days later, I left my first major purchase at my dad’s house in rural Illinois. There it will spend its days, its fluids drained and its battery disconnected, weathering the elements and waiting for the day when I will come back and get behind its wheel.

Hardcore enviros may see my temporary separation as weak: if I were really all about the environment I would give my car up completely. Like hell. I paid good money for that car, and I know that unless I move to Portland, OR I won’t always be living in a city with unlimited public transportation.

I’m not alone in my feeble need to hang on to the familiar in case something better never comes along. A major shift is underway in how we power our world, so people are clinging to the familiar for the same reason they go back to old exes that don’t really make them happy — because it’s comfortable and reassuring nonetheless. This grasp onto accustomed ideals, eerily chanting “Drill, baby, drill” as if oil were a pagan god, feels necessary because right now everything else — from the stock market to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — seems out of our hands.

However, just because change seems scary, inconvenient, and even costly, that’s no excuse to stop innovation dead in its tracks. Despite the recent dip in the cost of a fill-up, it’s possible I won’t even be able to afford to drive my car the next time I see it. That could be a good thing, though; it would motivate me to seek out other transportation options. In this way, rising gas prices serve as just another reason to trash the weathered trail map we’ve used for so many decades and forge a new path toward a clean energy future. If we don’t, our addiction to oil will no doubt lead us to a dead end.