Diesel fuel is selling for an average of $4 per gallon nationwide, about 20 percent more than the cost of a gallon of gasoline. On Tuesday, truck drivers across the nation parked their rigs to protest high fuel prices.
At a truck stop south of San Diego where diesel is priced at $4.23 a gallon, trucker John Miller lamented the escalating pump prices.
"Outrageous. My boss complains about it every day," said Miller, who had just picked up a load of furniture and paid $299 to top off his fuel tank. "We've been across the country and it varies anywhere from $3.80 to $4.23. Here's the highest I've seen."
The long-haul driver said for the same amount of money he might have gotten five more gallons in his home state of Nebraska.
But Miller is lucky because he drives for the Cornhusker Moving Group, and like most larger trucking outfits they're able to pass on higher fuel costs to their customers. Independent truckers don't necessarily have that bargaining power.
'I Don't Make No Money'
Independent Jose Lara is thinking about selling his truck and going to work for one of the big trucking firms. Lara is headed to Utah from the port of San Diego with a load of bananas. Afterward, he'll pick up a load of Idaho potatoes for the trip back to Los Angeles. Most of what he makes on the trip will go toward expenses, including fuel.
"I don't make no money," Lara said. "I don't make no money at all."
Independents drive nearly one out of 10 trucks on the road and Larry Daniel, president of America's Independent Truckers Association, said a lot of drivers with fixed expenses are in the same position as Lara.
"If a trucker's not rolling down a highway, he's not making money," Daniel said. "He's got a truck note due. He's got insurance that's due. He's got to send money home to momma so she can pay the house note and buy clothes for the kids and all this. And he will take a load that actually causes him to lose a little bit of money."
Diesel fuel, which can also be used for heating, normally costs more than gasoline in the fall and winter, although not this much more. And it's usually cheaper than gas in the summer. This year, the Energy Department expects diesel fuel to be more expensive throughout the year. According to Laurie Falter, an Energy Department economist, a drop in diesel imports from Europe is partly to blame.
"Over in Europe, their economy is still going really strong. And their vehicle fleet is transitioning more and more toward diesel," Falter said. "So all the excess diesel supply is being sucked into Europe and there is not as much available for us to import."
In Europe, about half of all new cars sold have diesel engines. But Diane Crispell of the market research firm GFK Roper said clean diesel technology is just beginning to catch on in the U.S.
"The primary reason that people seem to show interest in any kind of alternative engine is for the savings," said Crispell.
Diesel engines typically go about 30 percent farther on a gallon of fuel than gasoline engines do. When diesel prices are this much higher, however, the cost per mile is almost the same.
"That 30 percent greater mileage gets wiped right out," she said, and that loss in savings could put the brakes on sales of new diesel vehicles here in the U.S.
Pull Off the Road
Most truck drivers don't have any choice but to buy diesel fuel, unless they stop driving altogether. Joseph Paul Trainor decided to park his rig and sit on the beach Tuesday, after dropping off a load of fruit juice in San Diego.
"It's like everybody wants something for nothing," Trainor said. "And they finally pushed us past the nothing point."