Volume 14, Issue 19 ~ May 11 - May 17, 2006

Looking for Relief at the Gas Pump

Better fuel efficiency can save only pocket change without policy changes

by Carrie Steele

They creep in the early morning hours. Sometimes in the mid-day, when most commuters are toiling at work. Some are stealthy. Others act boldly.

Gas station workers post up new gas price numbers outside of filling stations almost daily. And those numbers keep creeping higher.

An average gallon of regular fuel is now $2.990, some nine cents more than the national average, $2.901. With Maryland’s gas prices among the sixth highest in the nation, we’re approaching our peak average since post-Katrina’s $3.268 per gallon. That’s a dollar more than we were paying this time last year.

That’s a change we can see on the global scale, too.

“This time last year, the market was about $55 per barrel. Now it’s $75 per barrel,” says Amanda Knittle, a spokeswoman for the Automobile Association of America. So we shell out more at the pump.

Modern life requires a commute to work or school; laissez-faire development forces us to drive to the grocery store and beyond for our shopping.

But desperation breeds invention.

By learning new habits, drivers can save pennies, nickels, dimes and even quarters at the pump. At the same time, you’re saving pollution from harming our land and water. Here are a few tips from AAA:

Slow Down: Drive the speed limit. Each five miles per hour you drive over 60mph adds the equivalent of 10 more cents per gallon — plus speeding fines.

Idle Engines Are the Devil’s Workshop: Try to avoid idling your car for longer than a minute. Longer idling wastes more gas than restarting the engine.

Let the Air Flow: Check your air filter. If it’s clogged with dirt, dust or insects, your engine works harder. Replace clogged air filters and you improve gas mileage by as much as 10 percent, saving some 30 cents per gallon.

Get Pumped Up: Keeping your tires properly inflated helps your wheels to drive better. Under-inflated tires can cause a drag on the vehicle — like driving with the parking brake slightly on — costing a mile or two a gallon.

Don’t Put the Pedal to the Metal: Accelerating gently, braking gradually and avoiding hard stops saves your engine from over-working. Fast starts and stops use between five to 33 percent more fuel. Driving smoothly can save you between seven and 49 cents per gallon.

Keep an Even Temperature: As temperatures rise outside, it gets harder to balance comfort with fuel efficiency. Blasting the air conditioning reduces fuel economy by about five percent. Use air conditioning sparingly. Recirculating cool air in your car makes less work for your engine. On the flip side, drag from open windows can also reduce gas mileage.

Go Zero: How to get the best fuel economy is not on AAA’s list. The true fuel economy is zero. Not driving — or reducing the amount of driving you do — is the best way to avoid the cost of gas. Telecommute or walk, bike, carpool or take public transportation to work or school.

Fueling Rising Prices

Energizing your driving style not only saves you pennies; it also multiplies your saving with those of like-minded drivers all over the state. If everyone used less gas, prices would drop.

“Anytime demand goes up,” says Knittle, “they can charge a higher price.”

Supply and demand, however, is not the sole factor feeding rising fuel prices.

“Prices typically go up in the spring when refineries are switching to cleaner-burning fuel blends,” says Knittle. “This year, that additive has changed from MTBE to ethanol.”

The trouble with MTBE — methyl tertiary butyl ether — is that it’s a ground-water carcinogen. But because it had been in use since 1979, it could be produced fairly inexpensively.

Alternatives like ethanol are more expensive to produce, though Midwestern states have been pushing ethanol technology to support corn growers.

Almost half of the U.S. has banned MTBE, including Maryland this year.

Clean-burning ethanol blends require added traveling costs as well as production costs.

“Gas with MTBE blends could go through pipelines, but ethanol can’t go through pipelines,” Knittle says. “It has to be blended after it’s shipped and before it leaves the distribution point.”

Add the fallout from world political events and new speculation on the oil market, and we suffer at the pump.

In the short term, we can hope for seasonal relief.

Too Little Relief

For us, a smidgen of relief may come sooner.

Such specially reformulated gas is required in areas with poor air quality to help reduce summer smog. In Maryland, it’s required only in Baltimore City plus 13 counties, including Anne Arundel and Calvert.

To keep gas flowing and to slow the rise in prices, Gov. Robert Ehrlich requested that the Environmental Protection Agency temporarily waive requirements for the use of reformulated gasoline in Maryland. That, of course, is a short-term solution that trades pollution for pennies.

But do we really want to trade health protections for a few pennies of relief? Is it prudent to allow governors to waive environmental rules for the momentary illusion that things aren’t as bad at the pump as they seem?

We have the right to expect better solutions from our leaders. For starters, Congress could rescind the $10 billion in tax breaks handed last year to the oil industry, which is reporting record profits. That’s our tax money we’re giving them in the coming years, on top of the money they’re extracting at the pump.

Additionally, a windfall-profits tax might, over the long run, safeguard against gouging oil companies.

From every indication, especially the rising demand for oil in China and India, fuel will become an increasingly precious commodity. Our pain at the pump will not be short term.

Driving less and smarter give us the only true savings — until we trade in our gas-guzzlers for hybrids, alternative powered engines or gas-free technologies.

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