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Experts reject proposal on `hot fuel' guidelines

Consumer groups seek temperature-correcting devices on gas pumps.

July 12, 2007|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

A nationwide group of measurement experts Wednesday rejected a proposal that consumer groups said would help end a gas-pump inequity that costs Californians millions of dollars a year.

The proposal took aim at the so-called hot fuel phenomenon. Gasoline expands in volume as temperature rises, but because U.S. gasoline pumps don't take temperature into account, motorists who buy gas that's hotter than the government-standard 60 degrees get less energy in each gallon.

The matter was the subject of intense debate Wednesday in Salt Lake City, where a group of government experts considered whether to endorse ground rules for gas station operators who opt to install devices that compensate for temperature fluctuations.

Most members of the National Conference on Weights and Measures, a group made up of state and county experts, voted in favor of the hot fuel proposal. But the "yes" tally fell short of the group's requirements for passage.

The outcome was a victory for oil companies and gas retailers who opposed the voluntary guidelines and fought hard to derail the vote. They have argued that installing temperature compensation devices would be costly and provide little benefit to people buying gas.

"This is a defeat for consumers and for the economy," said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who hosted a congressional hearing on the topic last month.

The disappointment was echoed by Judy Dugan of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which estimated that hot fuel costs Californians an extra 3 cents per gallon.

"California is the hot fuel capital of the world, and its motorists lose more money than in any other state," Dugan said. "The science of hot fuel is simple and the loss to consumers is undeniable. Lawmakers have to stand up to oil industry pressure and do what's right for motorists."

The National Conference on Weights and Measures is a powerful player in the debate because it lays out specific rules that states almost always adopt to govern how fuel and other goods are sold and measured. The group gathers once a year to vote on suggested changes.

Michael Cleary, chairman of this year's conference, said the proposal could be resurrected at a future meeting.

"A lot of people have been kind of overwhelmed by all of this ... but this thing isn't going to go away," said Cleary, an official with California's Division of Measurement Standards. The California delegation, along with representatives from the South and other Western states, were the biggest proponents of the proposal.

Cleary said inaction by the conference did not prevent California from moving forward on the issue. "If something isn't specifically prohibited in law, then it is permitted. So there's nothing prohibiting the oil companies from installing this equipment in California tomorrow. It's just that the division of measurement would have to very quickly come up with a uniform methodology to test the equipment ... and they could easily do that."

Last year, California certified a temperature-correcting device that could be used at gas stations. The North Carolina manufacturer, Gilbarco Veeder-Root, said it had received no orders.

In Canada, where the colder weather benefits drivers, gas stations have been quick to install temperature compensation units that eliminate motorists' cold-weather advantage.

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elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

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