A fix for ‘hot fuel’ faces decisive vote

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The Kansas City Star

SNOWBIRD, Utah — A National Conference on Weights and Measures committee has turned aside efforts to postpone voting on a fix for “hot fuel,” but approval of the fix is in doubt.

Oil industry pressure has been mounting since January, when the committee called for a vote at the conference’s annual meeting on a voluntary system that would allow retail fuel pumps to adjust fuel volumes for temperature fluctuations.

A vote on the proposal is planned today.

Pressure increased this week as those attending the meeting, held at the Snowbird ski resort near Salt Lake City, were urged to postpone the vote for a year so that various issues could be studied. Several state weights and measures officials who are members of the conference said they would vote against the measure if it wasn’t postponed.

But representatives from the major fuel-consuming states of Texas, California and North Carolina, who held a majority on the committee, rejected calls for a delay. Saying a more accurate method was needed, they argued that nothing would be gained by postponing a vote.

Now is the time, said Roger Macey, an official with the California Division of Measurement Standards and a committee member, for the conference to move ahead with the issue. He noted that the group’s purpose was to ensure accurate measurement in commercial transactions, and the proposal would provide guidelines to states planning to introduce fixes.

“As a group that’s what we’re here for,” Macey said. “We need to be ahead of the curve. We know it’s coming.”

The committee’s decision means that for the first time in the history of the conference — which is conducting its 92nd annual meeting — the group will vote on allowing fuel volumes to be adjusted for temperature at the retail pump.

Even so, the outcome of the vote scheduled for today remains unclear. Opponents on Tuesday were speaking as though defeat of the reform effort was a foregone conclusion.

Ross Andersen, the head of New York’s state department of weights and measures, was among those supporting a delay. He argued that there should be answers to questions about hot fuel when it comes back for a vote in a year.

In an interview, Anderson said the decision in January to proceed to a vote had been rushed and more time was needed to build a “consensus” on the matter.

The oil industry has opposed any measure to introduce temperature adjustment for retail customers and said it would cost too much with little or no benefit for consumers.

Alex Schuettenberg, fuel science adviser for ConocoPhillips Co., said introducing temperature adjustment at the retail pump would open Pandora’s box. He said retailers in hot climates such as Texas were unlikely to voluntarily pump fuel adjusted for temperature because there was no financial incentive.

“No one is going to want to do it,” he said.

But consumer groups object to another year of deliberations. They argue that the conference was essentially doing the bidding of the oil industry, which has pushed for more studies of hot fuel.

Judy Dugan, research director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, Calif., countered that hot fuel was costing consumers billions of dollars annually in additional fuel costs. She said delaying action by this “supposedly independent group” was unwarranted. “To say this issue needs more study is simply duplicitous,” Dugan said.

The possibility that the conference would not be more aggressive in dealing with hot fuel also appeared to trouble the group’s chairman, Michael Cleary, whose term ends on Thursday. Cleary said a fix for hot fuel was going to be a “reality in the marketplace whether we like it or not,” adding that regulators would regret not proceeding with a decision.

“I think we’re going to be sorry for it,” he said.

The Kansas City Star last August began publishing a series of stories about “hot fuel” and how, at current prices, consumers nationwide pay an estimated $2.3 billion annually more for fuel.

The physics of hot fuel are fairly simple. Fuel expands and contracts depending on temperature. At the longtime industry standard of 60 degrees, the 231-cubic-inch U.S. gallon puts out a certain amount of energy. But fuel is often sold at much higher temperatures, causing the fuel to expand and the amount of energy to decline for each gallon dispensed. Indeed, a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that the nationwide, year-round average temperature of retail fuel was 64.7 degrees.

At other stages in the fuel delivery chain, the industry routinely adjusts volume for temperature change using the 60-degree industry standard. But retail pumps in America make no adjustment for changes in the volume caused by temperature, so consumers get only 231 cubic inches per gallon regardless of temperature.

The issue has received increasing attention in recent months. More than three dozen lawsuits have been filed, and Congress has held a hearing on the topic. Another congressional hearing is expected in the next few weeks.

Last week, 14 members of Congress sent the National Conference on Weights and Measures a letter urging that it act on helping fix hot fuel.

The effect of the letter was unclear. Some of those attending the annual meeting said they were worried that if the conference didn’t act, that the federal government would take a more active role. But at least some were disdainful of the letter, which they considered regulatory meddling. “They’re nuts,” declared one weights and measures official before tossing the letter aside.

The National Conference on Weights and Measures establishes model measurement codes that states can adopt. Its members include government officials and industry representatives, but those who vote on the proposed codes are state weights and measures officials.

The group’s influence comes from producing guidelines that will ensure uniform measurement standards throughout the U.S. For instance, the hot-fuel proposal, if approved, would prevent fuel retailers from frequently switching back and forth between adjusting fuel volumes for temperature or not. This would prevent using one method in the summer and another in the winter.

But states are not prevented from acting on their own if the conference does not act. This possibility is rising along with mounting evidence that the hot-fuel problem is real and perhaps more serious than initially thought.

Stephen Benjamin, who oversees weights and measures in North Carolina, said the state had done its own study of fuel temperatures since The Starpegged that state’s annual average fuel temperature at 69 degrees.

North Carolina collected fuel temperatures on 100 stations using data that covered a year and confirmed the newspaper’s findings. Indeed, state officials were surprised that winter fuel temperatures weren’t as low as expected, never dipping below 60 degrees.

California officials also said they have been surprised by the findings of their own study. California regulators are finding fuel temperatures as high as 105 degrees, with the hottest summer weather yet to come. As in North Carolina, California officials said fuel temperatures aren’t dipping as much as expected in cooler months.

What’s next: The National Conference on Weights and Measures considers “hot fuel” issue.

To read the entire hot fuel series, go to www.KansasCity.com.

To reach the author Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send e-mail to [email protected]

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