Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WHEN IS A GALLON NOT A GALLON?....I see that Dennis Kucinich is busy tackling one of the nation's most urgent problems: the fact that gasoline expands in hot weather. Thus the gallon of gasoline you buy in summer might not be a full gallon. It might only be 99.5% of a gallon.

That's not really much of a difference. And anyway, in winter you're probably getting 100.5% of a gallon. But it's not winter right now, is it? It's summer. And Kucinich apparently thinks the way to fix this miscarriage of justice is to require gas stations to install temperature-compensating meters on their pumps at a cost of about $2,000 a pop. That way we'll get 100% of a gallon all year round.

I have two reactions to this. The first comes from Michael O'Hare, who correctly points out that none of this matters. If the meters do their job and gas stations take a 0.5% hit on revenues, they won't just eat it. After a short while their prices will increase 0.5% and we'll be right back where we started. Sometimes Economics 101 really is all you need in order to figure out that something is just plain dumb.

That really ought to be my only reaction, but I can't help myself. I have to add this. It turns out that oil companies, which are fighting Kucinich's proposal, have a rather different attitude toward temperature-compensating pumps in more northern climes:

Retail pumps in this country don't have that capability. But the devices are widely used in Canada, where the temperature equation works in favor of consumers instead of fuel retailers — and where the oil industry pushed for the right to add the equipment.

It might be economically useless, but it's hard not to figure that what's good for the Canadian goose is also good for the American gander. I'm still opposed to Kucinich's proposal on grounds of general dumbness, but I have to admit that there would be a wee bit of cosmic justice involved if it passed.

Kevin Drum 1:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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Comments

I'm pretty darn impressed to discover that fuel pump meters are accurate to within 0.5%.

Posted by: Constantine on June 12, 2007 at 1:29 AM | PERMALINK

Much more of a rip-off is ethanol-infused gasoline. IIRC ethanol gives only 85% of the energy per-gallon of real gasoline

Posted by: crayz on June 12, 2007 at 1:32 AM | PERMALINK

Ethanol is stupid from the point of view of everyone other than corn farmers and ADM stockholders. It takes more fossil fuel to produce the ethanol than you get back by burning it, and as crayz points out, it's a bad deal for consumers. I think it even pollutes worse.

I continue to be unimpressed with Kucinich as well. The good news is he's one of those guys that is too funny-looking to ever be a serious presidential candidate. Extremely superficial, I know, but true.

Posted by: jimBOB on June 12, 2007 at 1:40 AM | PERMALINK

I should say, more fossil fuel energy than you get back by burning it.

Posted by: jimBOB on June 12, 2007 at 1:43 AM | PERMALINK

This kind of moronic nanny-statism is the reason that LIBERAL is now a bad word. Gawd save us from little twits like Kucinich, who is plenty happy to interfere in a loss of 1/200th of a dollar, but who will not support the right to choose by a woman, and will not support stem cell research.

Anti-Catholic prejudice is one type of prejudice I can often get pretty sympathetic with.

Posted by: POed Lib on June 12, 2007 at 1:45 AM | PERMALINK

How much will it cost to add these devices to existing gas pumps, how often do they have to be serviced/calibrated, how much will that cost, and how long before they have to be replaced?

That is, will we be spending 1.0% to "save" that 0.5%?

Posted by: Robert Earle on June 12, 2007 at 2:00 AM | PERMALINK

Considering that the price of gasoline can vary as much as five percent from one week to the next, and since the oil companies adjust the pumps for a "market clearing" price, the whole concept is silly. In other words, the amount of fuel delivered, demand, and the supply lines are all factored into the price, and the physical expansion of the fuel is just one fairly minor element among many. Why not just advise people to buy gas at night if they are concerned about that extra two cents a gallon? Perhaps Kucinich can solve the health insurance crisis first and then take up the expansion coefficient of hexane.

Posted by: Bob G on June 12, 2007 at 2:11 AM | PERMALINK

Thermal expansion may have an effect on fuel pumped from tanker trucks, since those tanks are exposed to air temperatures. But thermal expansion can hardly have any effect on fuel sold at the pump. That fuel is pumped from underground storage tanks buried at least four feet underground. At that depth, the soil temperature hardly varies at all, even in extreme weather. Earth is an incredible insulator and an enormous heat sink, there are heating and cooling systems called "ground source heat pumps" that use this effect, look into it for the physics.

Posted by: charlie don't surf on June 12, 2007 at 2:11 AM | PERMALINK

If the oil companies in Canada worry about it, it is a real issue.

I agree that this is a trivial issue in the US, the way the oil companies hose down the consumers, but maybe that is why Kucinich is bothering with it, just to annoy the evil scum?

Posted by: yo on June 12, 2007 at 2:59 AM | PERMALINK

Actually, this is a huge deal and it costs American consumers billions a year. Steve Everly at the Kansas City Star (a McClatchy outfit) has written a series of articles on this topic over the last year. Here is a link to his most recent piece.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on June 12, 2007 at 3:38 AM | PERMALINK

The expansion of gasoline in warm climes versus Canada is a red herring.

Govenments, from time immemorial, have been involved enforcing weights and measurements. It's probably one of the greatest benefits of government, though few people think about it.

It began with coinage and the gas pump falls within that realm. A dime here, a buck there - soon adds up to serious money.

California gas stations are in compliance with the law 97.4 percent of the time, according to a study that tested 309 locations between June 2005 and March 2006.

Would even Libertarians argue against this kind of idea of regulation?

Getting what you pay for is the bedrock dogma of everything ths county stands for...

Posted by: Scaramouche on June 12, 2007 at 4:18 AM | PERMALINK

Just what we need: complicated over-regulation to try to fix a trivial problem.

Blue Girl's link says:

The physics of hot fuel is fairly simple. Gasoline and diesel expand and contract depending on the temperature. The industry uses a 60-degree standard, at which the 231-cubic-inch American gallon puts out a certain amount of energy. But that same amount of gas expands to more than 235 cubic inches at 90 degrees. Consumers, however, still receive only a 231-cubic-inch gallon, because U.S. pumps don’t make any adjustment.

Presumably we get that back in the winter when that 231 cu.in. gallon shrinks to something like 227 cu.in. at 30°F.

But if we don't, the solution is simple: require them to nudge the standard up to, say, 65°F., so that it will average out over the course of the year. You'd need a phase-in period to give everyone time to have their pumps recalibrated, but that's no biggie.

There, was that so hard?

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on June 12, 2007 at 5:19 AM | PERMALINK

It's a Canada goose, not a Canadian goose. [exasperated sigh]

Posted by: folkbum on June 12, 2007 at 5:44 AM | PERMALINK

Um, won't your gas in the tank also expand, so it'll take 'less' gas to fill your tank, making it a wash?

Posted by: Jon H on June 12, 2007 at 6:05 AM | PERMALINK

"Um, won't your gas in the tank also expand, so it'll take 'less' gas to fill your tank, making it a wash?"

Controversy over. Also your brain expands at a greater rate than your skull making it easier to register as full.

--------------------------

A few random thoughts.

Aren't Canadian gas stations getting screwed. While they could have just charged more per gallon, they are now, in essence, delivering more total gallons of gas and paying a larger gas tax to the government. Or maybe they have a different non-compensating meter on fuel trucks or storage tanks for tax purposes? Maybe in warm climates in the US storage tanks have temperature compensating meters for gas tax calculations.

Why not let Kucinich fill his tank in the morning?

More volatiles are lost to the atmosphere when it's warm -- so atmospheric pollution is another reason Kucinich should fill his tank in the morning.

Alternatively, cars warm up faster, get better gas mileage, and have lower emissions when it is warm. So Kucinich should park at the gas station overnight, fill up at 3 AM, and push his car (with black painted hood) into the sun early in the morning. By noon he should be ready to start his commute.

Posted by: B on June 12, 2007 at 6:54 AM | PERMALINK

When I go to the gas station to buy gas, the tanks that the gas is stored in are underground. They are below the frost line, so the temperature inside the tanks is (within a degree or so) 57 degrees YEAR ROUND. It will not reach ambient air tempeature until some while after it is in your tank.

Don't believe me? Try this simple experiement. Buy a 2.5 gallon red gas container and a cheap cookie sheet. Find a gas station that is not real busy and carefully fill the 2.5 gal container to the very top so you cannot put any more in. Put the container on the cookie sheet and and place both out of the way and in the sun. Then watch the gas expand as it heats up and runs into the cookie sheet.

Posted by: Chief on June 12, 2007 at 7:17 AM | PERMALINK

"carefully fill the 2.5 gal container to the very top so you cannot put any more in. Put the container on the cookie sheet and and place both out of the way and in the sun. Then watch the gas expand as it heats up and runs into the cookie sheet."

Yes Egbert, try this.

The best way to make sure the container is really full (with no air bubbles) is to jet the gasoline in until approximately 1 or 2 gallons spill over on your feet.

A nice sunny spot is usually found a few feet just to the south of the pumps.

Waiting for the gas to expand can take patience. If you don't have a watch I suggest waiting the length of time it takes to smoke six cigarettes.

Posted by: B on June 12, 2007 at 7:36 AM | PERMALINK

First Norman Rogers, now B -- we are starting to get some actual funny people around here now that every thread doesn't open with trolls!

If we are going to meter gas, we should meter it where it would actually do some good. In the gas tank. Dennis Kucinich should require car companies to put a Toyota Prius-style miles-per-gallon monitor in every new vehicle. This would lead to so much fuel savings from the simple positive feedback of seeing how much you save when you slow down, plus being able to boast to your friends about how much mpg you got on the way to work this morning. Who wants to see that big old '12' staring them in the face from their Hummer dashboard every day? And no nanny-stating at all. Just giving you the information you need to make your own choices about how much gas you want to use.

Posted by: Noumenon on June 12, 2007 at 8:21 AM | PERMALINK

now B -- we are starting to get some actual funny people around here

B is consistently very funny. I wish he or she would quit its job and entertain us full time.

Posted by: shortstop on June 12, 2007 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, Shortstop, and you could have the other Cole singing "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" as well.

Thanks, Chief, for reminding folks about the lower temperatures of the tanks in the ground. Now, if we could have all of twit newscasters stop yakking about someone hitting a "pump" whenever an errant driver hits a dispenser with their car - Car would have had to have been four feet in the ground to hit a pump - Pumps have not been on islands since the 70s - The pumps are in the ground atop the tanks - You fuel from a dispenser on the island, not a pump. Of course, the JFK "terrorizers of FAUX" might think they could run over a "pump" and blow up the entire city.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on June 12, 2007 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

If we are going to meter gas, we should meter it where it would actually do some good. In the gas tank. Dennis Kucinich should require car companies to put a Toyota Prius-style miles-per-gallon monitor in every new vehicle.

Hmmm. Reminds me of the '80's! All those digital dashboards, quite a few MPG meters then. The other side benefit is that you can see what happens to your gas mileage when you drive over 60mph. Remember the "bump" in gas prices immediately following the federal repeal of energy speed limits back in 1995?:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Maximum_Speed_Law

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on June 12, 2007 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

Someone better start metering my milk better. My last "gallon" was off by at least a fluid ounce.
And the last "pint" of beer I got at a bar was no more than 11 ounces, maybe 12. What a rip-off.
I just found my presidential platform...

Posted by: Govt Skeptic on June 12, 2007 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

What I want to see in a Teflon-lined gas spout so there isn't dribbling wasted and polluting spill after each fillup.

Posted by: Stewart Dean on June 12, 2007 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

volume doesn't mean jack anyway, we should be paying for molecules. threaten to make the oil companies install 30 digit molecule counters, then back off to making them install milligram-accurate weightometers when they squawk. oh, of course all gasolines are really blends, so we'd need some fancy calibration equipment to adjust the pump each time the blend changed, preferably under real time control via a wireless link. no doubt the customers would be happy to have that +-0.5% error taken care of, and I'm sure they wouldn't notice that now it costs $27.50 to drive down to lowes for a box of screws instead of the $5 it costs today.

Posted by: supersaurus on June 12, 2007 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

supersaurus,

While you're down at Loew's, look at the price of rigid copper pipes - A ten foot section of Type M will cost you over $32.00 - Price was just under 5 bucks four years ago - Chinese have bought up all of the copper in Chile, however, in other news, today, there is no inflation, and now back to fuel punp systems.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on June 12, 2007 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

Whenever I see Kucinich on tv, I want to cry out, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome elf?"

Posted by: lampwick on June 12, 2007 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

With summer prices already higher than winter prices, wouldn't the effect of this re-calibration just be to drive summer prices to an even higher number per gallon?

Posted by: James G on June 12, 2007 at 9:33 AM | PERMALINK

Ok, the guy is a moron, what else is new?

However, I have to question the assumption that gasoline sold at the pump varies much in temperature in the United States. Every gas station I have ever seen has tanks under the ground which should keep the temperature of the fuel around 50-60 F year round.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on June 12, 2007 at 9:42 AM | PERMALINK

Fuel system works in Canada - Nah, we wouldn't want that here.

Health care system works in Canada - Nah, we wouldn't that either.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on June 12, 2007 at 9:43 AM | PERMALINK

There's not a lot of sense in slinging conjecture back and forth. I'd venture a guess that somewhere lurking around there is hard data to either back this issue up as 'real' or declare it moot.

I'd reckon that it will take a lot of gas through the pump to render a .5% difference as real boon to the individual consumer, but to the oil companies and the taxing powers the cumulative effect is probably huge. Likely hundreds of millions.

Kucinich's real interest in this problem might be in the tax revenue lost due to under-metering.

Posted by: Buford on June 12, 2007 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

lampwick: Whenever I see Kucinich on tv, I want to cry out, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome elf?"

I'll never forget his wide-eyed, sycophantic grin at the conclusion of this past State of the Union address, as he shoved forward in the crowded aisle and eagerly outstretched his hand in hopes of touching George W. Bush. It was truly revolting.

Posted by: shortstop on June 12, 2007 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

I think Kucinich's wife should run for persident.

Posted by: goethean on June 12, 2007 at 10:24 AM | PERMALINK

Global warming will solve the peak-oil crisis AND save the environment: as the ambient temperature rises, all of our gas will expand, thus generating each year an increase in volume equal to all petroleum we ever could hope to recover from ANWR.

Or something like that.

Posted by: lampwick on June 12, 2007 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

Or something like that.

Don't forget it will all be tax-free AND generate tax revenue!

Posted by: squall on June 12, 2007 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

Kucinich opposed going to war in Iraq, unlike the "major" money-making candidates.

Hundreds of thousands of people would still be alive.

That is much more important.

I thought only only lowlifes like the right-wing radio hosts engaged in the politics of derision.

I was wrong.

Posted by: deejaays on June 12, 2007 at 11:02 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not 'engaged in the politics of derision' when I speak of Dennis Kucinich.

I'm deriding him.

Exhibit 1 (of many)

Excerpt from Kucinich's keynote address to the "Dubrovnik Conference on the Alchemy of Peacebuilding":

"Spirit merges with matter to sanctify the universe. Matter transcends to return to spirit. The interchangeability of matter and spirit means the starlit magic of the outermost life of our universe becomes the soul-light magic of the innermost life of our self. The energy of the stars becomes us. We become the energy of the stars. Stardust and spirit unite and we begin: One with the universe. Whole and holy. From one source, endless creative energy, bursting forth, kinetic, elemental. We, the earth, air, water and fire-source of nearly fifteen billion years of cosmic spiraling."

Posted by: lampwick on June 12, 2007 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

Kucinich's consistent opposition to the war in Iraq is why I was especially sickened by his SOTU impersonation of a 14-year-old girl falling all over rock star Bush. I expected Kucinich to be above the fawning worship of presidential power. I was wrong.

Posted by: shortstop on June 12, 2007 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum: And Kucinich apparently thinks the way to fix this miscarriage of justice is to require gas stations to install temperature-compensating meters on their pumps at a cost of about $2,000 a pop.

Neither link supports this preposterous assertion. $2,000 might be the cost of a retro-fit, but what about simply requiring that new pumps have this provision. Solid state temperature sensors cost pennies (check under the hood of your car for some) and, with another few cents for an additional A/D input, hook into the CPU that controls modern gas pumps. Certainly oil companies found it cost effective in Canada.

I hardly think that this is the most important thing for Congress to look into, but claiming that it would cost $2,000 per pump is the sort of bullshit that should never be propagated.

Posted by: alex on June 12, 2007 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

"Um, won't your gas in the tank also expand, so it'll take 'less' gas to fill your tank, making it a wash?"

As a general rule, liquids expand much more with temperature than solids, and as a specifically rule, gasoline expands a lot more than steel or plastic.

Posted by: fafner1 on June 12, 2007 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Kucinich is probably impressed by those digital meters that show how much gasoline is dispensed, to the nearest 1/1000 gallon.
Conserve fuel--put a brick in your gas tank!

Posted by: mark on June 12, 2007 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

From an environmental standpoint, morning is the worst time of the day to fill up. Ground-level ozone is created by a reaction between volatile hyrocarbons like gasoline and nitrogen oxides, which is significantly enhanced by exposure to sunlight. So putting extra gasoline vapor into the air first thing in the morning gives it more opportunities to react in the sunlight with nitrogen oxides and create ozone. Filling up at night give the vapors a chance to blow away, which is why many air quality districts ask people do do that during air quality emergencies.

As someone pointed out earlier, the air temperature doesn't affect the gasoline temperature, since it's sitting in a tank that's buried under asphalt, concrete and/or dirt, all of which are great insulators. In a study of parking lots in Tucson, the temperature at the bottom of two inches of asphalt peaked at midnight, about 9-10 hours after the peak air temperature, and the heat would progress even more slowly through the underlying dirt. And a typical gas station tank contains five to ten thousand gallons of gas, an enormous thermal mass; even if it were sitting above ground, it would take several days for that much gasoline to equilibrate to air temperature. I've measured it myself at air temps of 80F at 2:30 PM and 48F at 5 AM, and the gas temperature was essentially the same (I actually measured two degrees higher at 5 AM, but that's probably measurement error).

So filling up in the morning doesn't get you more gas for your money, and is bad for the environment.

Posted by: Leszek Pawlowicz on June 12, 2007 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

I'd gladly endure the price of thermal expansion until we are rid of the gang of crooks in the White House. Perhaps Mr. Kucinich could temporarily leave weights-and-measures to the various state agencies charged with the job, and since he is a Member of the House, spend his time working with his colleages to pass some bills of impeachment already?

I'm sorry, but I don't have the capacity to worry about gas pumps while my country is imprisoning people without charges, and the fundamental apparatus of the justice system is being converted to serve the Republican party.

Maybe that's just me.

Posted by: biggerbox on June 12, 2007 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

This idea distinctly shows where Conservatives, moderates and Progressives differ with most Liberals and all the Socialists. Having the government own and run the gas station is Socialist. Forcing the gas station owner(s) to sell at a given price is Socialist. Forcing them to ensure the pumps are safe to operate and the prices don't blow up our economy and that the employees are paid well and so on is Liberal.

But, letting them run their business with moderate regulation and worker protections while devising & implementing a national strategy to provide better energy supply at cheaper prices for everyone while maintaining better international relations, well that's gotta be better than the over-reaching over-controlling Libs and Socialists.

It doesn't have anything to do with good intentions or unintended consequences.

Kucinich has good intentions and often has good direction and sometimes has good ideas. But, far too often he goes off the deep end.

Posted by: MarkH on June 12, 2007 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

If the supposed 'answer' to some problem involves the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, or natural gas) then the 'answer' is flawed and a better solution must be sought. Gasoline is just another flawed 'answer' to the problem of propelling cars although we didn't know that in the 50s when we designed our mobile society. Mr. Kucinich needs to find some other problem to solve.

Posted by: slanted tom on June 12, 2007 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Kucinich's wife put him up to it, but since she's a total babe, I forgive her.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on June 12, 2007 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

all the energy use statistics you could possibly want?

check it out:

http://www.bp.com/productlanding.do?categoryId=6848&contentId=7033471

Apparently, American consumption of carbon-rich energy declined from 2005 to 2006. By about 1.5%. That would be good news, if it could be continued.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on June 12, 2007 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, let me see if I've got this right. Canada is colder so the gas expands .5%. You want me to believe that rather than charging a tiny bit more per gallon the Canadian oil industry wants to add a $2000 piece of equimpment to every pump?

Huh?

Posted by: Terry on June 12, 2007 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK

"Someone better start metering my milk better. My last "gallon" was off by at least a fluid ounce.
And the last "pint" of beer I got at a bar was no more than 11 ounces, maybe 12. What a rip-off.
I just found my presidential platform..." - Govt Skeptic.

You say that jokingly, but the 95% pint was a significant plank in one of the British Labour Party's campaigns under Tony Blair.


Posted by: Dismayed Liberal on June 12, 2007 at 8:20 PM | PERMALINK

another item about solar power:

http://southernstudies.org/facingsouth/2007/06/solar-power-in-sunshine-state-and.asp

Note the suggestion of where to put the PV cells: parking lots and highway right-of-ways, among other places frequently mentioned like rooves and between row crops.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on June 12, 2007 at 10:03 PM | PERMALINK

I understand Dennis's concern but mine has to do with the what the unit price does with our reflexes. Have you ever noticed how hard it is today to release the lever upon reaching a specific dollar amount. With the gigantic increase of the unit price, each of us is likely giving an extra penny or two to the oil cos. Do the math. The last three times I've purchased $25.01 worth instead of the intended $25.00. I know, it's only a penny. Who cares?

Posted by: fillphil on June 13, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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