Committee halts regulatory effort to fix hot fuel

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The Kansas City Star

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — The National Conference on Weights and Measures, under industry pressure, on Tuesday tabled a nationwide regulatory fix for hot fuel — pushing resolution of the issue into 2009 at least.

The move was made by a conference committee on a measure that would have established the way fuel, adjusted for temperature, would be sold in the U.S. The item would have been voted on in July by the full conference if the committee had decided to go ahead.

The vote followed a day of hearings in which oil-industry representatives pummeled the idea of adjusting retail fuel pumps to account for temperature fluctuations. State weights and measures officials expressed reservations about proceeding without more information and more of a consensus.

“The conference is clearly split on this,” said Judy Cardin, the conference’s chairwoman.

Hot fuel occupied most of the conference’s four-day meeting, but the decision to table any fix was made in less than 15 minutes by the committee.

Members of the committee made few comments besides stating a desire for more information that they hope to have by the end of the year. Privately, they said the issue had become so divisive that they saw no hope for passage in July — if ever.

The suddenness of the decision surprised many of those attending who expected more public discussion by the committee. Some questioned if the decision had already been made.

“It reminds me of a group of Chicago aldermen,” said Judy Dugan, research director of “I feel pole-axed.”

The decision puts more pressure on states to develop their own standards for a fix for hot fuel because, as one put it, the “monkey is out of the bottle” regarding temperature adjustment of fuel.

Some officials said change may come in the marketplace even without regulators embracing a new nationwide standard.

An official from California, the nation’s largest fuel-consuming state, said two retailers planned to install pumps that would adjust for temperature fluctuation. The pumps are not considered illegal in California or in most states.

“This is going to happen in California,” said Robert Atkins, agricultural commissioner and sealer of weights and measures in San Diego.

Gasoline and diesel expand and contract in reaction to fluctuating temperatures. The industry, about a century ago, adopted a 60-degree standard for a 231 cubic-inch gallon. If the fuel temperature is different than 60 degrees, then a gallon shrinks or expands, affecting the amount of energy it delivers to drivers.

Fuel volumes are adjusted for temperature as they move through most of the distribution chain, including at wholesale. But retail pumps used in the U.S. make no adjustment as they dispense 231 cubic inches of fuel regardless of the temperature. This means when fuel temperatures are above 60 degrees, consumers receive less fuel than they should if the industry standard was used.

The Kansas City Star, in a series of stories beginning in 2006, reported that consumers nationwide paid an estimated $2.3 billion more than they otherwise would have to because the year-round average fuel temperature was nearly five degrees higher than the nationwide standard.

Fuel temperatures can vary widely among stations with no way for consumers to know.

The weights and measures division of the Kansas Department of Agriculture released a study at the conference showing that in Topeka during a four-day period in 2007, fuel temperatures varied as much as 20 degrees among stations.

The focus of attention on hot fuel now moves to the California Energy Commission, which expects to complete a study by the end of the year that will examine the cost and benefits of fixing hot fuel. The committee that tabled the fix for hot fuel said it wanted to review the study when it was available.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said at the New Mexico meeting it was doing a less ambitious study that would review existing studies and reports on hot fuel. That study could be completed by late summer.

Weights and measures officials said the opposition made it impossible to reach a decision because the National Conference on Weights and Measures prefers to reach a consensus with the businesses it regulates.

An attorney representing an association of independent gas-station owners said adjusting fuel for temperature at retail should not be done.

“The consensus you seek probably is not available,” said R. Timothy Columbus, an industry attorney in Washington.

Supporters and opponents of a hot-fuel fix appeared to agree that a consensus would never happen.

“There is not going to be a consensus on this item until gasoline is not used as a propellant,” said John Siebert, a project manager with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, based in Grain Valley.
To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send e-mail to [email protected]

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