The high cost of hot fuel - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

13 Investigates

The high cost of hot fuel

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The temperature of fuel impacts the amount you pay every time you fill up your tank. The temperature of fuel impacts the amount you pay every time you fill up your tank.
Larry Stump records a fuel temperature during a recent inspection. Larry Stump records a fuel temperature during a recent inspection.
Senator McCaskill says a new law is needed to protect consumers from hot fuel. Senator McCaskill says a new law is needed to protect consumers from hot fuel.
This temperature compensation device is already standard on Canadian gas pumps, but not in the U.S. This temperature compensation device is already standard on Canadian gas pumps, but not in the U.S.
Scot Imus says any problem created by hot fuel in the summer is offset by cold fuel in the winter. Scot Imus says any problem created by hot fuel in the summer is offset by cold fuel in the winter.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

What you don't know at the gas pump may be costing you big.

You are getting cheated every time you go to the gas station.

That's what some scientists, researchers and lawmakers are saying, and it's not because of the high price of gas.

It's because of its high temperature.

The state's Director of Weights and Measures says the issue of hot fuel affects every gas station and every consumer in Indiana.

"There are major ramifications in this whole situation and, yes, there is a problem," said Larry Stump, who is now doing something he has never done before.

Stump and inspectors from the Indiana State Department of Health's Division of Weights and Measures are measuring the temperature of fuel at gas stations around the state. They are collecting data that will help federal officials determine the extent of the problem - and how much it's costing you.

SOME SIMPLE MATH AND PHYSICS

Gasoline expands and contracts based on its temperature. As gas gets warmer, it expands and contains less energy. That means an 80-degree gallon of gas has less energy than a gallon at 60 degrees. Put another way, if the gas you are pumping into your tank is warm, you should be receiving a little bit of extra gas to compensate for the reduced energy in that fuel. But gas pumps don't do that.

All pumps in Indiana are set to the national 60-degree standard, even if the temperature of fuel is much warmer. Hot fuel means you are getting gasoline with less energy, and that forces you to use more and pay more for your gasoline.

13 Investigates obtained the state's first five weeks of fuel temperature readings from early September through mid-October. Based on federal calculations, the data shows consumers lost the equivalent of between one and five cents per gallon because on fuel temperatures that were higher than 60 degrees.

Fuel temperatures varied between 65 and 83 degrees, although Stump said fuel temperatures earlier in the summer would have been much higher due Indiana's long stretch of higher-than-90-degree weather.

"On a hot summer day, hot fuel can cost as much as ten cents a gallon," Stump said. "At this point, we're just trying to figure out how bad the problem is, so we're doing the study for twelve months."

Fuel temperature data from Indiana and around the nation is being compiled at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  Researchers there have already started to see a trend.

"The information we've received so far does indicate the temperatures are significantly higher than 60 degrees," said NIST Weights and Measures Coordinator Dick Suiter. He has seen fuel temperature readings from some Sunbelt states hit nearly 100 degrees.

Now some lawmakers want to take action.

BILLIONS OF DOLLARS    

"I just think it's unfair," says Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), as she clenches her fist in her Washington, D.C., office. "When you buy a gallon of gas, you deserve a gallon of gas."

McCaskill learned about hot fuel from a series of reports in the Kansas City Star, which estimated that hot fuel nationwide costs American consumers $2.3 billion per year at the fuel pump.

After reading that report, McCaskill introduced legislation she calls the F.A.I.R. (Future Accountability in Retail) Fuel Act.

"What this bill does is it requires gas stations to put in temperature control devices so you're getting what you pay for," she said.

Temperature control devices are already widely used by oil companies to help protect their profits. The devices are used to help compensate for the temperature of fuel throughout the fuel distribution process - from the time it is refined until it is delivered to your local gas station. The only place gasoline is not temperature compensated is right before it flows into your gas tank.

McCaskill's F.A.I.R. Fuel Act would change that by requiring automatic temperature compensation devices on all retail gas pumps within six years. Gas stations that do not comply could be fined $5,000 for each pump out of compliance, and the proposed law would establish a grant fund to help smaller retailers afford the new devices. Major gasoline retailers would not qualify for a grant.

"Since those big oil companies are the most profitable corporations ever on the planet, I think they can afford to put (devices) in the gas pumps that make sure the consumer gets a value for their dollar," McCaskill said.

CONSUMERS WILL LOSE OUT

The petroleum industry does not like the proposed solution.

"I think it's a bad idea because consumers will end up losing," said Scot Imus, executive director of the Indiana Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association. He says adding a temperature compensation device to every gas pumps would cost gasoline retailers millions of dollars - and that cost would be passed along to you.

Opponents of the F.A.I.R. Fuel Act also says the devices aren't necessary because any advantage gas stations get from selling hot gasoline is already reflected in the price you pay at the pump.

"If you suddenly take that advantage away, then all the market has to do is increase prices," said Imus, who also pointed out that hot fuel in the summer is balanced out by cold fuel in the winter.

Senator McCaskill disagrees. "It doesn't all balance out. It balances out in favor of the people selling gasoline," she said.

Statewide fuel temperature readings this fall show gasoline temperatures at the pump have been slowly dropping overall, but often not below 60 degrees. Last month, even on days when the air temperature was in the 40s and 50s, fuel temperatures remained above 60 and, in some cases, well above.

"We're looking at 71.7 (degrees) right now," Stump said as he measured unleaded gasoline at a service station on the east side of Indianapolis. The air temperature at the time was 52 degrees.

"The fuel is very warm when it's refined," Stump added. "It's used so fast, it doesn't have time to cool down in these below-ground storage tanks."

Suiter said the below-ground tanks serve as insulation for already-warm fuel.

"Those tanks are double-walled, sometimes triple-walled tanks, that act somewhat like a Thermos bottle in the ground," he explained.

Suiter said once he has collected all of the nationwide temperature readings from the ongoing yearlong study, the information will be used by the National Conference of Weights and Measures to determine whether temperature compensation is truly needed and, if so, how and where it will be best implemented.

Officials in the United States may look north for advice. Gas stations in Canada are not required to use temperature compensation devices, but nearly all of them do. Temperature compensation has been installed on those gas pumps for more than a decade. Of course, in Canada air temperatures are much colder than in many parts of the United States and, as a result, fuel temperatures are much cooler, too. Without temperature compensation devices, many gas stations north of the border would lose money as a result of cold fuel.

The U.S. Senate is expected to debate the F.A.I.R. Fuel Act next year. Want to contact your U.S. Senator to let them know how you feel about the proposed legislation? Here's how to reach them:

Sen. Evan Bayh
131 Russell Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
D.C. office 202-224-5623
Indianapolis office 317-554-0750

Sen. Richard Lugar 
306 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-1401
D.C. office (202) 224-4814 p
Indianapolis office (317) 226-5555

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