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January 10, 2008
Hot Fuel

[I wrote this a couple months ago, but I've been so busy with my day job recently that I haven't had a chance to do final editing until now.]

Have you heard of the Hot Fuel issue?  I first read about it in an editorial by Tom Elias in the local fishwrap:

Tom Elias in the Palo Alto Daily News: Gas Pumps Robbing Us

Wow; I was completely stunned.  There are so many blatant falsehoods and so much crazy twisted reasoning in this piece, it's just beyond comprehension.  I mean, just take the first two sentences:

It's one thing for consumer advocates to argue endlessly that oil companies are guilty of long-running collusion in setting prices.  There's plenty of evidence they are correct in that contention - the similarity of prices offered by different companies at the same intersections is one indicator.

If you have a number of retail outlets of any kind physically close to each other, the laws of simple economics and business survival dictate that the prices will be mighty close.  And gas stations are usually privately owned with prices determined by the owner or manager, not by oil companies.  So that's two blatant falsehoods in the first two sentences.  And the rest of this horrible piece is similarly dishonest.

But then I discovered that Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) held Domestic Policy Subcommittee hearings starting this past June to investigate high gasoline prices, specifically to "examine the effect of the thermal expansion of gasoline on the practical price of gasoline at the retail pump".  Huh?  It's right here:

Kucinich Media Advisory: Hot Fuels -- Big Oil's Double Standard for Measuring Gasoline

And here's a letter to the National Conference of Weights and Measures, signed by Kucinich and 13 other congressman and senators, all Democrats (!!!).  It urges a vote on temperature adjusted fuel and claims that the current system "is simply unacceptable".

And you can find the opening statement to the hearings on YouTube, here:

YouTube: Hot Fuel Hearing -- Kucinich's Opening

Man, oh man...  Again, almost every sentence is a blatant falsehood or a deception.  It's just a cascade of absurdities, one on top of another.  As if it's planned, as if it's on purpose, as if the goal of each absurdity is to stretch your ability to accept the next absurdity.

Hmmm, I've just coined a new phrase:

Cascade of Absurdities (n) -- The strategic use of a continuous stream of falsehoods or deceptions in a presentation for the purpose of propaganda, persuading the audience of a particular fictional belief by breaking down their connection to reality, common sense, logic or the basic laws of physics.  Often falsehoods presented later are based on falsehoods presented earlier, encouraging the listener to accept the falsehoods that are flying by just to keep up, even if only to stay politely interested.  There is no space left available for any kind of logic or reason, there is no opportunity allowed to question inconsistencies.

The technique is often used in a positive way in filmmaking, where the storyline might take place in an environment far removed from the viewer's everyday world, say some time in past history, or in the future, or in a fanciful world.  It's necessary to pull the user from their day-to-day life and quickly bring them into this new environment, and the viewer is a willing accomplice because they want to get into the story.  An example would be the delightfully twisted laws of physics found in the Roadrunner cartoons.

Dreams are similar.  In a dream you find yourself thrown into some made-up situation, into some alternate reality, and the standard rules of logic are nowhere to be found.

Yes, gasoline expands with temperature; that's fundamental physics.  In fact, almost all materials, in almost all states (solids, liquids, gases) expand with temperature.  Orange juice, milk, beer, anything made out of wood or metal, expands with temperature.  Gasoline has a coefficient of expansion of about 0.000950 per °C.  So a 10°F increase in temperature causes a volume quantity of gasoline to expand 0.5%.  For comparison, kerosene is about 0.000990 per °C, mercury (like in thermometers) is 0.000181 per °C.  (If you want to compare that to the expansion coefficient of water, it's a little difficult because water is very nonlinear in that regard.  At temperatures near boiling, water has an expansion coefficient of about 0.000695 per °C, but that drops with temperature and actually goes slightly negative near freezing.  But I digress.)

Pumps at gasoline stations in the continental US are calibrated at 60° F, so yeah, if you fill up when the gasoline is 20° F higher you'll get 1% less gas by weight, and likewise if you fill at a temperature of 20° lower, you'll get 1% more gas by weight.  The "problem", if you want to call it that... no I won't even give it that credibility...  The issue is that we purchase gasoline by liquid volume for convenience, and purchasing by weight (or more accurately, mass) would be a little more true to the intent.

Anyway, I'm thoroughly appalled by Kucinich's project.  Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Dennis Kucinch and his cohorts seem to not posses the most minimal science background.  But that doesn't stop them.

  • When someone decides to tell Dennis Kucinich and his friends about thermal expansion, their reaction isn't along the lines of, "my, that's a fascinating side effect of molecular structure", but instead they start on a quest to insulate the public from the laws of physics and blame it all on an oil company conspiracy.  Amazingly enough, they have a firehose of outrage conveniently available.  And they have the political resources to start congressional hearings on the issue immediately.

  • The solution proposed by Kucinich and friends is to redefine the meaning of a gallon unit of volume measure, and require all gas stations to conform to that new meaning.  (Wow, if you can change the meaning of a basic unit of volume measure on a whim, it would be all that much easier to change the meaning of words like "liberty", "freedom" and "vote".)

  • Kucinich: "Since the 1920's the oil industry has taken temperature into account for wholesale transactions".  Well, yeah!  If you're in the business of transporting large quantities of a liquid that expands with temperature, it's completely important that you take expansion into account when you fill your transport containers.  Otherwise you'd have exploding tanker trucks all over the place.  It's also probably lots more convenient and more accurate to measure wholesale quantities of gasoline by weight; weigh the tank before, weigh the tank after, and subtract.

  • Kucinich: "They make sure that the same amount of gasoline by weight and energy content is transacted."  The oil companies have absolutely no interest and no incentive in assuring that the same amount of energy content is, uh, transacted.  Heck, different gasoline formulations will by their nature have different energy content.

  • Kucinich claims that Canada uses temperature compensation for retail gasoline sales.  That may be true, I don't know, but that brings up two important points.  One is that he's assuming that if Canada does it, it must be right.  And secondly, since the average temperature in Canada is significantly lower than the average temperature in the continental US, and retail gas stations would stand to profit from such an arrangement.

  • Kucinch: "We invited Exxon, Mobil and Shell to testify today, because they have large commercial presences in both Canada and the United States.  And we hope they could explain why they decided to do one thing in Canada and another thing in the United States."  The issue is US vs. Canadian law, not Exxon, Mobil and Shell's corporate policies.

  • Kucinich: "The majority staff of the subcommittee conducted a study of the hot fuel premium American consumers are likely to pay during the coming summer season.  Using actual gasoline temperatures by month, and by state, and forecast prices for the summer, the staff calculated that gasoline retailers will sell over 500 million gallons of gasoline that are, in effect, created for free by thermal expansion, and consumers will pay over $1.5 billion for those heat-expanded gallons.  And they will be getting less energy for it.  People are paying for gasoline they're not getting."

    Kucinich describes how he selected measurements from the very hottest months of one specific summer and extrapolated them to the entire year.  Kucinich is using cooked numbers (heh-heh... get it?) and he's even admitting it, but the cascade of absurdities is so thick that there's no time for debate.

  • According to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 20th century average temperature over the continental US was 53.7° F.  Gasoline transported by rail or by road will average out toward that temperature.  At a gas station, fuel is stored in underground tanks, which have the effect of averaging the outside temperature even more.  So averaged over the year the consumer will see gasoline pumped at 53.7° F, which is 6.3° F below the 60.0° F calibration of the gas pumps.  This means that the consumers are actually ahead of the game.  (Well, if it was a "game" -- by that I mean, any overall statistical price difference would be absorbed into the price at the pump anyway.  The only reason I mention this is that its Kucinich's primary argument.)

    (That said, I'll be the first to admit that you can't just go by these numbers.  One could argue that the physical distribution of the samples used for the NOAA measurements may be very different that the physical distribution of gasoline retailers.  But on the other hand, gasoline spends a large fraction of its time in transit between refineries, distributors and gas stations.  At the very least, these numbers are far more believable than Kucinich's data, which are not referenced and are bogus according to his own description.)

  • "People in this country people end up paying a lot of money for gas they're not getting."  No, for every gallon they pay for, an actual gallon is pumped.  It's not the oil companies' fault that liquids expand with temperature.  Are there going to be be subcommittee hearing on other liquids?   Milk? Orange juice? Beer?

    (Admittedly those expand less than gasoline, and they're purchased and in smaller quantities than gasoline.  Still, in these days of zero tolerance...  Actually though, since coffee is mostly water and is served quite hot, so its expansion coefficient gets close to gasoline.  One should be able to extend Kucinich's arguments to a Starbucks lawsuit pretty easily.)

It may sound like I'm hammering on Kucinich, and, yes, I am.  While others are involved too (specifically congressfolk Wilson, Davis, Cummings, Moran, Hall, DeFazio, Grijalva, Sutton, Watson, Hirono, and Senators Boxer, McCaskill, and Lautenberg), Kucinich is leading the project.  And there are similar movements occurring at the state level.  And I'm not making personal attacks, I'm going by his own words.  And unlike the standards and practices at CNN, MSNBC, or The Daily Show, I'm not taking the words out of context.

But there's more...

None of the plans Kucinich and friends are proposing will actually do any good.  "Good" in the sense of increasing fuel efficiency, reducing waste, increasing the availability or lowering the price of gasoline at the pump.  Instead, the goal of the hearings is to spend money retrofitting every gas pump in the continental US with a meter that compensates for temperature.  'Sounds like a boon to the company making those meters.  What company makes those devices, and are they contributing to any politic campaigns? One can only imagine.  That cost will be paid by the consumer, of course.

There's also the news media aspect.  Performing the usual searches, I find lots of articles in the news media that fully support Kucinich, repeating his claims, without questioning the assertions.  Or his sanity.  Besides the article at the top of this page, there are these:

ABC News: $1.5 Billion 'Hot Fuel Premium' Hits Summer Drivers
ABC News: We're Being Cheated with 'Hot Fuel'
CBS News: Hot Fuel Costing Consumers Big Bucks?
Kansas City Star: Hot fuel for you means cold cash for big oil, retailers
Kansas City Star: End sought to overcharges
Consumer Affairs: Hot Fuel Bilks Consumers, Lawsuit Charges
USA Today: Motorists sue oil titans, retailers over 'hot fuel' losses

And so forth...

Actually Fox News and the AP don't drink the Kool Aid straight, although neither does the math nor mentions the effect of the winter months:

Fox News: Oil Executives Deny Gas Overcharging
AP: Hot gas is hot topic in courts and Congress

More on YouTube:

YouTube: Hot Fuel Hearing -- Cummings' Questions
(Oh man, this is embarrassing... Elijah Cummings roughs up Michael Cleary of the National Conference on Weights and Measures pretty badly.)

YouTube: Hot Fuel Hearing -- Cummings and Kucinich Exchange
(Massive bloviating.  "People find it so incredible that they find it unbelievable."  Oh baby.)

('Interesting that Nancy Pelosi has 1,016 videos on YouTube.  Who knew?)

I find it fascinating that this issue is a political morality play in a perfect storm.  A politician who finds basic physics offensive, blames it on the oil companies, gets other politicians and the media on his side, and attempts to enact legislation that costs far more money than it was supposed to save.

More resources:

Hot fuel and the 60 degree volume standard: Are we getting ripped off?
An interesting blog entry from "Another Monkey".

National Conference on Weights and Measures
Click on the meetings for some interesting notes.

This is crazy stuff, man.

Posted by DonTillman at January 10, 2008 12:47 AM

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