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As summer heat grips much of the country, some consumer advocates say motorists are getting ripped off at the gas pump. Gasoline, like all liquids, expands as it heats up, meaning a gallon of gas contains less energy as the mercury rises. Some lawmakers are considering requiring gas stations to sell temperature-adjusted gas in the summer.
From Kansas City, NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN: Unlike most stories about rising oil prices and rip-offs at the gas pump, the culprit here is physics.
Mr. TYSON SLOCUM (Director, Public Citizen's Energy Program): You know, in the summertime fuel gets hot and as it gets hot the volume expands, but the energy content does not.
BEAUBIEN: Tyson Slocum directs the energy program for the advocacy group Public Citizen.
Mr. SLOCUM: And as a result, when you pull up to a gas station, start filling up your car, you are getting less gasoline that you're actually paying for.
BEAUBIEN: Well, not really. You're still getting a gallon of gas. The problem is that when a gallon of gas heats up from, say, 60 degrees to 80 degrees, it expands by about one percent. Thus, the gas station buy the gallon of gas at 60 degrees and then sells it at 80 degrees, the gas station will get to keep that extra one percent.
Mr. SLOCUM: The House of Representatives has estimated that folks are getting ripped off to the tune of about a billion and a half dollars this summer.
BEAUBIEN: Representatives for gas stations and the oil industry say no one is being ripped off. They argue that any benefit they get in the summer is wiped out by the winter months when liquids contract. This issue has come up in large part because wholesale gas is sold on a temperature-adjusted basis. Wholesale fuel transactions assume that the temperature of the fuel is 60 degrees. If a large supplier delivers gas at a higher temperature, the buyer is compensated accordingly.
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BEAUBIEN: Hersh Casey, who runs a Sinclair Gas Station in Mission, Kansas, says he thinks the issue is being blown out of proportion.
Mr. HERSH CASEY (Owner, Sinclair Gas Station): All my gas is stored in the ground in steel tanks. And I can't say enough heats up that quick.
BEAUBIEN: Some pushing for the change say that the nation's gas pumps should be retrofitted to address the hot fuel issue. The pumps would dispense a little bit more or a little bit less gas depending on whether the liquid is above or below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hersh Casey has been pumping gas for 48 years and he says he barely makes a profit off of it right now. It's his auto shop that keeps him afloat. And most gas stations are in the bulk of their profit selling cigarettes, soda and beer. Casey says the cost of retrofitting his gas pumps would lead to higher prices for his customers.
Mr. CASEY: And when they charge me, I'll have to pass it on. The oil company has to pass that, and they're going to pass it on.
BEAUBIEN: While the less dense, warmer fuel being sold in the summer contains less energy, the drop is fairly small. A 30-degree rise in fuel temperature could cause a one to two percent decline in the amount of energy per gallon. However, the laws of physics here are counterbalanced by the laws of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In the summer, the EPA requires oil companies to sell a different gas formulation to help reduce smog. These summer blends of fuels just happened to have one to two percent more energy per gallon than their winter counterparts.
Despite this, hot fuel has become a hot issue. Congress and legislatures in several southern states are considering tackling it. At least four lawsuits have been filed to try to force oil companies to sell temperature-adjusted gas at the pumps in the summer. Motorists concerned that they're being ripped off by hot fuel have one more reason to envy Hawaii. It's the only state to adjust its pumps for warmer gas.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.
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