As gasoline approaches $5 a gallon, motorists are becoming increasingly frustrated at how much it is costing them to fill their tanks. What many in California are not aware of is that, due to an unusual thermodynamic phenomenon, they very well could be paying an additional hidden cost at the pump, according to a Santa Monica-based consumer advocate group.
Consumer Watchdog, formerly known as the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, has conducted several studies over nearly two years on hidden costs that consumers in warmer states like California pay for gasoline that is hotter than fuel sold elsewhere in the nation.
“California is the hot fuel capital of the world, and our consumers lose more money than any other state,” says Judy Dugan, Consumer Watchdog’s research director.
Due largely to the state’s climate, California motorists purchase gasoline that is at least 15 degrees warmer than the government standard of 60 degrees, according to the Santa Monica advocacy group. Gasoline expands when it heats up and when it is sold by volume, this results in a hidden increased cost to motorists, which can be as much as an extra eight cents per gallon more, they say.
Organizations like Consumer Watchdog have advocated for major oil companies to voluntarily place stickers on their gasoline pumps advising motorists in states such as California, Florida and Arizona that the fuel sold to them during the summer tends to expand and thus has less energy per gallon.
More important, Consumer Watchdog is hoping that the state legislatures will request that the companies that have gas stations in their states install temperature compensation gauges in their fuel nozzles, which will calculate the current temperature and then adjust the fuel quantity accordingly.
ExxonMobil is one of two companies that have voluntarily agreed to place stickers on its gas pumps alerting motorists to the fact that the energy content of a gallon of fuel varies as it expands due to temperature increases.
“It is simply a reminder [to customers] that the dispenser sells motor fuel by volume,” said Exxon spokeswoman Prem Nadir in a statement. “This is how fuel has traditionally been sold at retail in the continental United States.”
Oil companies and trade organizations associated with the oil and gas industry have largely fought the idea of installing temperature compensation measures, claiming that consumers would be harmed the most if gas stations began to implement this practice.
“If everybody has to put on temperature correction equipment […] that expense is going to be passed on to the customer in the price of gas,” said Jay McKeeman, a vice president at the California Independent Oil Marketers Association, a trade group for gas station owners, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in May. “What we don’t know is whether that cost to the customer will be offset by the benefit.
“In our estimation and evaluation, it won’t.”
Proponents of the temperature compensation technology claim that compensating for the heat expansion would save California motorists money that they may already be unwittingly paying at the pump, which is especially crucial during a time when gasoline and energy prices are having a devastating effect on consumers lives.
“The consumer is being cheated out of millions of dollars each year because of hot fuel,” asserts Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, a nationwide consumer advocacy organization.
Government agencies are aware of how gasoline that is sold at a warmer temperature can have an impact on the finances of residents of a particular region.
Due to the hot fuel phenomenon, “In Los Angeles County each year, consumers stand to lose as much as $40 million gallons a year in lost fuel,” said Jeffery Humphreys, the deputy director of the Los Angeles County Weights and Measures Bureau.
Dugan said that media attention has begun to make consumers more aware of the reduced value of hot fuel, as opposed to four or five years ago.
“I think that there is more sensitivity to the issue now,” she said.
At the National Conference on Weights and Measures this year, unlike last year, no vote was taken on hot fuel and whether temperature gauges should be installed.
Last year, a proposal to develop guidelines for gasoline operators to choose to install temperature compensation devices gar- nered 24 votes, three short of the number necessary for consideration.
In 2007, California certified an instrument that would compensate for higher gas temperatures to be used by willing gasoline operators. The manufacturer, North Carolina-based Gilbarco Veeder-Root, says that it has not received any orders for the device.
“The manufacturer has not offered it for sale,” Humphreys countered.
State Assemblyman Mike Davis of Los Angeles introduced a bill last year, AB 868, which would require the California Energy Commission, in partnership with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the state Resources Board, to conduct a survey and cost-benefit analysis regarding the reference temperature for hot fuel dispensation. The bill also asks for recommendations to the State Legislature regarding future legislation and regulations no later than December 31st this year.
Dugan feels that AB 868 does not go far enough.
“It’s just a study,” she pointed out.
On the national stage, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri has introduced legislation called the F.A.I.R. (Future Accountability In Retail) Fuel Act that would require the installation of temperature compensating equipment at all retail gasoline distributors within six years.
“Some say you get what you pay for,” the senator said in a statement. “That’s just not the case at the gas pump in the summertime. We have the technology to change that, and there’s no good reason not to utilize it.
“The big oil companies are the most profitable corporations in the universe, and yet they continue to fight against consumer protections while we pay the price. The least we can do in Congress is ensure consumers are getting what they pay for.”
Claybrook and Dugan back McCaskill’s bill, as does the Owner-Operator Independent Truckers Association, an independent trade association representing private drivers and independent operators.
“We are in favor of any legislation that would require temperature-adjusted compensation at retail fuel pumps,” said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the association.
Claybrook feels that the only way to get temperature-controlled instruments in place is through federal legislation like McCaskill’s bill.
“Until we get a new Congress, there probably won’t be any movement on this issue,” she said.
“This bill would rectify the problem,” Dugan added.
Local State Assemblyman Ted Lieu voted for AB 868, but would go further in requiring California to do what Hawaii does.
“They use temperature control instruments that measure fuel at 80 degrees,” said Lieu. “I think that what we should do here in California is to have the devices installed where the temperature of the gasoline is measured at 75 degrees to compensate for the hotter fuel.”
In Canada, over 95 percent of the country’s gas stations also employ this technology.
State Senator Jenny Oropeza, whose district includes Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey, is also in favor of AB 868.
“I supported Assemblyman. Davis’s measure because a study would be the first step toward improving fuel efficiency,” Oropeza said.
“As for the issue of changing gas volume when it’s hot, this seems to be a genuine concern for consumers.”
Dugan believes that even with McCaskill’s bill, which will likely not be heard until next year, getting oil companies and politicians to agree to install this new technology will be an uphill battle.
“There is an immense amount of political lobbying at all levels of government by the big oil companies to stop this from happening,” she said. “This is an outgrowth of the failure at the state and national governments to encourage conservation at a much higher level.”