The Kansas City Star
CHICAGO, IL — The fight over hot fuel came to a boil this week.
A committee of the National Conference on Weights and Measures, meeting in Chicago, said the technical obstacles to converting retail pumps to adjust for temperature were not as serious as once thought and could be easily overcome.
That conclusion was a breakthrough for the regulatory group, which has struggled for decades with the issue of hot fuel — the fact that gasoline and diesel expand as they get hotter, lowering their energy value per gallon.
The committee’s positive technical findings, however, were soon overshadowed by a furious response from industry representatives in the audience, who outnumbered the five committee members three-to-one.
A Washington lobbyist, an American Petroleum Institute official and other industry representatives led the opposition to any fix, saying it would not help consumers, would be costly to implement, and would unleash untold lawsuits.
The committee, whose role was to work out the details of how a fix would be implemented if eventually approved, was instead urged to reconsider whether the change should be made at all.
“This is an opportunity to go back and examine the economics,” said Prentiss Searles, a senior associate with the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group.
The agenda was changed to include a debate on whether a fix was needed. Searles was allowed to write down the comments from the proceedings, listing the pros and cons of the issue, which will be given to weights and measures officials for their consideration.
“It’s a hijacking of the meeting,” Judy Dugan, research director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, told those attending the meeting. “This is intimidating.”
The maneuvering came nearly two months after a vote of the National Conference on Weights and Measures — a group of state regulators that sets standards for states to follow — fell just short of the absolute majority of its membership needed to approve a hot fuel fix.
Though some regulators have pondered the issue for years, hot fuel started gaining national attention last August when The Kansas City Star began a series of articles on the subject. The reports estimated that U.S. consumers were being overcharged $2.3 billion a year because so much fuel is sold above the industry standard of 60 degrees. 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.
In the past year the issue has gotten increased attention from the national conference, dozens of lawsuits have been filed on behalf of consumers and congressional hearings have been held. This month Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, introduced legislation that would require pumps to adjust for temperature; her bill included a trust fund to help many gas stations pay for converting their pumps.
At the national conference’s recent meeting, some objections to the proposal for temperature adjustment stemmed from concerns about technical issues such as determining the density of fuel and difficulties in inspecting the equipment that makes the adjustment.
A committee was set up to collect more information on those and other issues that would need to be handled if retail fuel is dispensed adjusted for temperature.
That committee’s three-day meeting in Chicago, which ended Wednesday, was meant to share the committee’s findings and get reaction. The findings now will go to the conference’s four regional groups, which each meet during the year, and to the national conference, which has an interim meeting in January and its annual meeting in July.
Besides oil industry and consumer group representatives, several other regulators who are members of the national conference attended the committee meeting this week.
The industry representatives, who ranged from gas-station owners to big oil company officials, were largely silent on the details of what was needed to implement a hot fuel fix, preferring instead to say it was not needed. In some instances, they did comment on why they thought certain proposals would not work.
Industry representatives also mentioned a National Academy of Sciences study on the cost and benefit of adjusting fuel for temperature, and they urged committee members to consider it.
Sarah Dodge, vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, said the study would be completed in September or October.
But Bill Kearney, a spokesman for the National Academy of Sciences, in a telephone interview said there “is no study at this point.” There have been discussions with a House committee, Kearney said, but no decision has been made and no money provided for a study. Moreover, the academy would be unlikely to do a cost-benefit analysis.
“We would stick to the science,” he said.
Most of the state weights and measures officials who attended the Chicago meeting voted against or abstained from voting on temperature adjustment at the conference’s meeting in July. Three of the five committee members did as well.
Nevertheless, progress was made on the technical issues, which were once seen as major concerns.
One committee member’s recent trip to Canada, which has been adjusting fuel for temperature for about 20 years, settled concerns about the inspections. The only additional equipment required by an inspector would be a $250 thermometer, and the additional time needed was not as much as expected.
“We can do this easily,” said Ross Andersen, the head of New York state’s weights and measures department and a member of the committee.
The density of fuel was also viewed at the July annual meeting as a major problem because fuel can have different densities, which affects the adjustment needed for hot fuel. That was solved by recommending that an average be used.
The committee did struggle with reaching a recommendation on whether the fix for hot fuel should be mandatory or voluntary. That issue probably will be left to the national conference and its regional associations.
The committee’s meeting wrapped up Wednesday morning with encouragement for everyone involved to share views, including those representing consumers and independent truckers.
Judy Cardin, chairwoman of the National Conference on Weights and Measures, said all viewpoints were needed on what is considered the major issue facing the conference.
“Thank you all for being here,” she said. “This clearly is not an easy decision.”
To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send e-mail to [email protected]