‘Hot Fuel’ Adds To Pain At The Pump
A survey shows that Californians could be overpaying as much as $3.4 million a day as heat makes gas expand.
Soaring gasoline prices are bad enough. But this summer, California’s
higher temperatures could add an additional 8-cent-a-gallon wallop
because pumping warmer fuel gives motorists less energy per fill-up.
"Consumers are paying through the nose for gas today, and they’re
really angry," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, who at a
Thursday news conference urged consumers to back proposed federal
legislation that wouldrequire gas pumps to take account of fuel’s
tendency to expand in warm temperatures.
Because of the so-called hot fuel phenomenon, she added, this summer
"just about everyone will be overpaying for the gas that they
purchase." Claybrook said the temperature hit could cost customers an
extra $3 billion nationwide.
In fuel-hungry California, where the statewide average gasoline price
passed the $4-a-gallon mark Thursday, a new survey showed that
motorists could be overpaying by as much as $3.4 million a day during
the summer months.
"It’s a significant number, and one that we shouldn’t be paying," said
Judy Dugan, research director at Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog,
formerly called the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "With
every rise in the price of gas, hot fuel becomes a more important
For consumers and companies struggling with their fuel bills, the added insult of a hot-fuel penalty is unwelcome.
"It irritates me because I don’t think it has to be that way," said Jim
Aasen, who owns Montrose-based Crestmont Appliance Service. Last year,
the monthly gas bill from all his house calls jumped to $425, up $100.
"When that happened… I raised my service call charge by $20," he
said. Now that $4-a-gallon gas threatens to boost his costs further,
Aasen said, "I might have to do it again."
The science behind the hot-fuel controversy isn’t in dispute. The U.S.
government defines a gallon of gas this way: At 60 degrees, a gallon is
231 cubic inches. But when fuel is warmer than 60 degrees, the liquid
expands, yielding less energy per gallon. When it’s colder, the fuel
Gasoline expands or contracts 1% for every 15-degree change in the
fuel’s temperature. Diesel volumes change 0.6% per 15-degree change.
The phenomenon — and the economic effects of it — is so well known
that U.S. oil companies and distributors track the temperature of the
fuel they sell one another and adjust the total bill to conform with
the 60-degree standard.
Gas stations and truck stops don’t have temperature-compensating
devices, so the pumps dispense each gallon as if it is flowing at 60
degrees — and the stations charge customers as if they are getting
There is nothing illegal about the practice. It’s been allowed for
decades by measurement regulators who assumed that retail fuel
temperatures stayed close to the government standard most of the time,
and that any losses from hot fuel in
the summertime would be offset by gains in the winter.
California’s new study, which sampled fuel temperatures around the
state during a 12-month period, found that gasoline temperatures were
almost always well above the 60-degree standard. The year-round average
temperature was 71.1
Calculating how much money consumers lose in the process isn’t easy,
though, because the amount of the overpayment depends on the
temperature of the fuel and the retail price of gas, and both are in
"It’s the equivalent of the grocer taking your meat into the back room
to weigh it and putting his thumb on the scale," said Dugan of Consumer
Watchdog. "With gasoline, everybody has their thumb on the scale."
Consumer groups and trucker organizations — some truckers have sued
oil companies over the issue — have urged state and federal officials
to force gas stations to install equipment that would rectify the
problem. The possibility is being studied in California.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced legislation in August that
would require all new and upgraded retail fuel pumps to be outfitted
with automatic temperature-compensation equipment.
In Canada, where cold weather would give consumers the advantage at the
pump, most fuel retailers were quick to invest voluntarily in the
devices. And Hawaii requires retail pumps to dispense fuel on the
assumption that it is 80 degrees instead of the standard 60 degrees.
A coalition of service-station retailers and truck-stop operators has
been fighting back, arguing that the equipment is expensive and that
there is no evidence that consumers are being cheated.
"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 Assn., a trade group for gas station owners and others. "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."
The state has approved one temperature-adjusting device for sale in
California, and measurement rules allow any station to install the
equipment voluntarily. McKeeman’s group wants to prevent that too.
In February, his group wrote state measurement officials urging them to
"immediately adopt emergency regulations" to prohibit any retailer from
installing the temperature-adjusting devices.
Contact the author at: email@example.com