"Hot Gas" Myopia

Friday, July 27, 2007

Editor's Note: This blog entry is based in part on an article that appeared in the print edition of the Houston Chronicle yesterday, but which has already been pulled from the web.

Dennis Kucinich, child prodigy, has already grasped the concept of "thermal expansion" at the tender age of 51 and he's making sure that all the adults out there who buy gasoline know it!

It is a little known industry secret that the amount of gasoline, when you fill up in the summer is less than the amount in the winter in terms of weight and energy. [And furthermore, p]eople are paying for gasoline they're not getting.
To get the science out of the way: Matter -- all matter, and not just gasoline -- expands as its temperature increases. Since a gallon is a measure of volume, this obviously means that at a higher temperature, there will be less fuel in a gallon because each molecule (which has a constant mass) effectively takes up more space. If you heat a balloon, it will expand. The same thing occurs in liquids and solids. (There are some exceptions. Water expands slightly as it freezes because the crystal structure of solid ice takes up slightly more space than unorganized liquid water molecules of near the same temperature.)

As Kucinich and every news article on this subject I have encountered are quick to point out, the oil industry has known about this for decades. Obviously, there is a vast conspiracy by Big Oil to gyp us all out almost a dime (not adjusted for government inflation of the money supply) per gallon six months of the year in some places (if we assume, as the Houston Chronicle's misleading graphic implied, that gasoline really does reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit in its underground storage tanks)!

As the articles are slower to point out, not only do temperatures vary far less underground (where gasoline is usually stored at service stations) than under the sun, but since fuel dispensing standards are tightly regulated by the government already, the notion of a vast conspiracy, at least by the oil companies, is patently absurd.

On that score, Kucinich should consider whether municipalities across the nation are systematically overcharging for water -- which he may be surprised to learn is also measured in gallons -- during the summer.

There is a legitimate point buried here, and it is this: Insofar as the government has, as part of its proper role (of protecting individual rights), the task of providing a means of settling disputes among parties to contracts, it is important that those who trade liquids agree to some standard of measuring said liquids. While the government itself need not be involved in defining such standards, they would need to be legally defined somewhere and that meaning be understood among all parties involved in such transactions.

But that is not what Kucinich is doing here, despite the fact that many consumers, addled by years of government "education", will doubtless be surprised to learn that the mass of gasoline in a one gallon volume does indeed vary slightly over the year. Not only does he ignore the fact that the government sets the standards for measuring gasoline volume and imply that business is evil by conveniently ignoring government sales of liquid commodities, he fails to take many other far greater factors into account when he focuses on (and exaggerates) the small decrease in the number of pounds of gasoline we buy per gallon in the summer.

To wit:
  • Gasoline shortages (alternate link) induced by government regulations that prevent the building of new petroleum refineries -- and strain the capacity of those we already have by forcing them to cater to an artificially fractionated market via the mandate that they produce over 60 "blends" of gasoline. With tighter supply comes (effectively) increased demand and higher prices.
  • Inflation, (alternate link) in which everything costs higher in terms of absolute dollar amounts, thanks to the government deliberately increasing the money supply. (If we're going to talk about "less bang for the buck", I would suggest that we start here instead.)
  • Environmental restrictions on oil drilling (same article as above and here) which keep us from exploiting our own oil reserves as fully as possible -- even though we were the world's third-largest oil-producing country as recently as 2005!
  • Decades of appeasing foreign violations of the property rights of oil companies, which together with our refusal to extract our own oil, have put Americans at the mercy of OPEC.
  • Gasoline taxes, which alone accounted for a whopping 42 cents per (non-temperature-adjusted) gallon in 2002.
  • Government-mandated blending of ethanol (alternate link) into gasoline, which one economist estimated in 2005 adds 35-40 cents to the price of each (non-temperature adjusted) gallon.
  • Other government regulations (same link as above) that add to the overhead of various stages of the petroleum industry. Notably, an industry estimate by Shell (cited in the Houston Chronicle) for Kucinich's own proposal to shift American service stations from selling gas by volume to selling it by weight is that doing so would cost "$20,000 to $30,000 per" service station.
And on top of that last point, Hugh Cooley of Shell Oil rightly indicates that, "If gasoline were temperature-adjusted at the retail level, ... the market would adjust prices to take that into account as well. In other words, if retailers sell 'larger' gallons, you should expect they would charge more for (those) 'larger' gallons." Even if the goal of this lame proposal could be realized at the wave of the wand, Kucinich wouldn't save us a cent.

Leaving aside the fact that Dennis Kucinich clearly does not understand that it is not the proper role of the government to run the economy.... If he had a grain of the intelligence he attempts to project by pretending to be some expert in physics -- or an ounce (temperature-adjusted or not) of integrity -- he would stop nattering over how heat might cost some of us perhaps a quarter or so at fill-up time a few weeks out of the year and instead consider really addressing high gasoline prices. Doing so, he would see the hand of the government, and he would realize that he needs to get it off the throat of our energy industry.

Since it is not worth waiting for him to reach the age of 102 before he grasps the immorality and impracticality of statism, I suggest we work to stop him in his tracks now.

-- CAV


: (1) Two minor edits. (2) Added note on foreign policy.

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