Limited mandate

| February 01, 2007

The standard temperature at which a gallon of motor fuel is determined was set at 60 degrees in an agreement between the oil industry and regulators nearly a century ago. At 60 degrees, a gallon of gas is measured at 261 cubic inches in volume. In the U.S., pumps are set at this standard, so if a person fuels up on a day when it’s 90 degrees outside, chances are the fuel is hotter than 60 degrees and the volume of the regulated gallon is more than 261 cubic inches. The suit alleges that person, therefore, is getting cheated out of the difference.

In 1990 the Canadian government, with the cooperation of the oil industry, required retrofitting of gas pumps with devices that adjust output volume depending on the fuel’s temperature. In Canada, though, the problem wasn’t hot fuel, but cold. In a widely circulated August report, Kansas City Star investigative reporter Steve Everly said, “In Canada, the industry makes more money by adjusting. In the United States, the industry makes more money by not adjusting.”

The average yearly U.S. air temperature hovers around 65 degrees nationwide, says Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “In Texas, the average annual temperature is 78.” Consumers in states with average temperatures lower than 60 benefit from the current practice and vice versa, but the average is an overall loss, according to Claybrook.

The American Petroleum Institute’s John Bisney says the trade association sees the issue as “swatting a horsefly with a hammer.” He estimates the cost of retrofitting a pump with temperature-compensation devices at $2,000 a pump, and pump replacements at $25,000, which costs he says will be passed on to the consumer.

“It strikes us as one of these attempts to make a perfect world,” he says. “It could be done, but in the end it’s not cost-effective and could end up actually costing more for the consumer.”

John Siebert, OOIDA project manager, calls the issue “one of the best-kept secrets that big oil already knew about.” Siebert was partly responsible for bringing the issue to light, as reported by Everly, after he began responding to member queries about why their gas mileage suffered so much in the summer.

Siebert and Claybrook say crude oil volumes are adjusted for temperature when they’re shipped, as are bulk fuel purchases. In America, they say, the only place where temperature compensation does not occur is at the retail pump.

Mindy Long, senior director of communications for NATSO, reflects the truckstop organization’s opposition to blanket implementation of temperature-compensation devices when she says, “When you’re looking at any sort of standard as regards these devices, it would need to be applied on a national level, and it seems like the cost of implementation versus the benefits is out of proportion.” One NATSO member company estimated a total pump conversion cost of $14 million, she says.

At the same time, NATSO is playing host to a session on the hot fuel issue at its annual NATSO Show in San Antonio this month. Featured speakers include Siebert, NATSO technology consultant Gene Bergoffen, and others.
- Todd Dills


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