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Americans cut consumption in face of record gasoline prices

January 17, 2012|By Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer
  • Record high prices for January, like those seen at this downtown Los Angeles gasoline station, are pushing U.S. gasoline consumption down to levels not seen in a decade.
Record high prices for January, like those seen at this downtown Los Angeles… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Today, the U.S. average price for a gallon of regular gasoline is 28.5 cents a gallon higher than it was a year ago, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. In California today, prices are 34.1 cents a gallon higher than those of last year. But if the Martin Luther King Jr.holiday is any guide, the fuel bite today won't be any worse on American wallets than it was last year.

What gives?

The reason is that U.S. drivers will burn about 36 million fewer gallons of gasoline today than they did last year, when they were bought about 370 million gallons, according to the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS) in New Jersey. Today's consumption mark is even further below the pre-recession threshold of 391 million gallons a day set in January of 2008.

The drop in consumption is canceling out the fact that gasoline prices today are well over the record levels for this time of year that were set in 2011. The average price of a gallon of gasoline in California today is $3.703, up 14.7 cents since last month, according to the AAA. Nationally, the average is $3.381, up 15.3 cents since last month.

But the sharp drop in consumption meant that Americans spent about $1.15 billion on motor fuel over the course of the King holiday yesterday, roughly the same amount they spent last year.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for OPIS, said U.S. gasoline consumption is on pace to drop to its "lowest levels since Elian Gonzalez was at the top of the news, Time Warner was heralding the synergies of its AOL purchase, and 'American Beauty' was the Golden Globe winner. The year was 2000."

The shift is all the more remarkable, Kloza said, when one considers that the U.S. population has swelled by 31 million people during the last 12 years, with Americans adding about 31 million more cars and light trucks than they had in the year 2000.

High gasoline price hangovers from 2011 may be one of the biggest reasons for Americans burning less gasoline by driving less, consolidating trips, moving closer to where they work, and buying higher mileage vehicles, according to the Energy Department.

Last year was the first year ever that national averages for a gallon of regular gasoline and a gallon of diesel never fell below $3, the Energy Department said.

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