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Saturday, July 12, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 2/16/2013

Looking for cheap gas a game with many losers and one winner

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Gasoline gamers play “scouting for cheap gasoline” all the time. We’re consumed with the game. We drive. We compare. We strategize.

The goal is to save pennies on the gallon. Sometimes we win. Eureka. We find cheaper gasoline by driving just a bit farther, usually on fumes.

Occasionally we win by word of mouth. A fellow gamer spots a station that hasn’t hiked its gas prices in collusion with every other station — yet.

We drop everything to line up behind other gamers who are waiting patiently at the pumps. By afternoon, the price jumps 20 cents. True story.

Our victories are few and far between regular fill-ups. Mostly we lose way too much money. The daily pattern of fluctuating gasoline prices is tough to beat and even tougher to figure out.

The vexing dilemma drives motorists mad. Ask my kids. Their parental chauffeurs always mutter, to no one in particular, about how the cost of fuel is robbing them blind.

We can’t catch a break. Even though American consumers are filling up their gas tanks less and driving more fuel-efficient cars, gasoline costs continue to take a huge bite out of household budgets.

Those budgets never recovered from the Great Recession. High pump prices are cutting into incomes that are depleted by flat wages. Nobody’s getting raises to cover the cost of driving.

As gasoline burns bigger portions of family budgets, people curtail spending. They don’t buy clothes or cars or eat out. They don’t give a weak economy the precise momentum it needs to expand.

Recovery stalls. Again. Higher fuel prices mean higher prices everywhere, from grocery-store costs to surcharges passed onto consumers by companies trying to recoup what they spent on gasoline.

It’s a losing game. Americans played it in the 1970s and 1980s with oil embargoes and spikes in gasoline prices. It was a crude awakening.

We decried our dependence on foreign oil. We vowed to change our energy habits. But we didn’t sustain the will to do so.

Gas prices fell and we clamored for gas guzzlers. Detroit obliged. The question before and now is the same: Will we remain slaves to foreign oil — whatever the cost to our future — or decide enough is enough?

Gasoline prices at $3 to $4 a gallon are the new normal. Soaring prices are sticking around. Filling a tank will take larger chunks of your income.

Last year, American households pumped about 4 percent of their pretax incomes, or an average of $2,912, into buying gasoline, according to a report by the Energy Department. The government said that was the highest percentage of household income spent on gasoline in nearly three decades, with the exception of 2008.

The far-reaching ramifications of the gasoline price drain on our economy cannot be shrugged off. The hundreds of billions of dollars Americans spend at the pump don’t help local businesses, or local gas stations. They reap ridiculous profits for Big Oil.

The Union of Concerned Scientists put the lopsided gas money equation into perspective. A report by the advocacy group found that vehicle owners, on average, spend almost as much on gas as on the vehicle itself. Researcher Joshua Goldman said a typical owner who in 2011 bought a car with average fuel efficiency (22.8 miles per gallon) and drives it for 15 years will spend more than $22,000 on gas.

“I had no idea how much gasoline expenses added up over the lifetime of a vehicle,” Mr. Goldman told me. “Out of the more than $22,000 spent on gas, about $14,000 goes directly to oil companies.”

Consumers can insulate themselves from volatile fuel-price swings by investing in fuel-efficient or hybrid vehicles Mr. Goldman said. “While you may pay $3,500 more for a fuel-efficient vehicle like a Ford Fusion SE hybrid, you’ll save nearly $9,000 in fueling costs over its lifetime.”

We don’t have to be held hostage to foreign oil or the speculation that artificially drives up oil prices. Tougher overall fuel efficiency standards, signed into law last year, are essential.

The mpg needle can’t move fast enough. But besides new-vehicle fleets that use less gas, we need new fleets that don’t use fossil fuels.

We have the technology. Do we have the will to stop playing no-win games?

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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