Who's at fault for gas prices? Partly, it's us
Big autos, longer commutes gobbling up supplies
May 11, 2004
BY JOCELYN PARKER
Sorry folks: We're at least partly to blame for the ongoing pain at the gas pump.
Sure, there are more vehicles on the road. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of registered vehicles grew about 22 percent, according to the federal government. And the miles those vehicles traveled jumped 29 percent.
But the biggest reason consumption has risen so sharply -- after growing at a much slower pace in preceding years -- is parked in many of our driveways: The number of light trucks, especially SUVs, has spiked in the past several years, growing about 74 percent between 1990 and 2001. And since these vehicles consume more gas than passenger cars, they're likely responsible for the record level of fuel use, experts say.
The period between 1980 and 1990 showed only a 5-percent increase in fuel consumption compared with a 23.5-percent increase between 1990 and 2003.
It's not that light trucks -- which consist of SUVs, vans and pickups, aren't more fuel efficient than they used to be. Better engines and lighter materials have vastly improved fuel economy since the 1970s, a time when thirsty V8 engines dominated America's roads.
But trucks are becoming a bigger part of our vehicle mix. In 1990, light trucks made up about a quarter of the nation's fleet, compared with 37 percent in 2001, the last year for which government figures are available. Since these vehicles get fewer miles to the gallon than cars, they're driving up the amount of fuel we use.
That use is straining already tight gas supplies. Experts say prices ultimately will move higher if things don't change.
"People enjoy bigger cars and SUVs and then scream bloody murder when there are higher gas prices," said Fadel Gheit, an oil analyst with Oppenheimer & Co.
Gas inventories are about 6 percent below what they were a year ago.
Fuel consumption is so high that the oil refineries are barely keeping up with demand, experts say. The refineries already are running at more than 90-percent capacity and the chance of new ones being built is slim, said Linda Casey, a spokeswoman for Marathon Ashland Petroleum.
According to a Bloomberg report, Valero Energy Corp. Chief Executive Officer Bill Greehey recently said that there could be fuel shortages this summer because refiners can't make enough fuel to meet rising demand.
Tight supplies generally move crude-oil prices higher. For consumers, higher crude prices equate to higher gas prices because crude oil makes up 46 percent of the cost of a gallon of gasoline. The other percentages are: 12-percent distribution and marketing costs, 14-percent refining costs and 28-percent federal and state taxes. Crude hit $40 a barrel last week, a 13-year high.
Fuel costs are reaching new records even before summer.
Gas prices in Michigan are near the record levels of the summer of 2000 and the chance of them falling isn't promising. On Monday, AAA Michigan said the average price of a gallon of self-serve regular stood at $1.94 in Michigan and $1.93 in metro Detroit.
We're burning gas at a record pace largely because we're dumping cars for trucks. Passenger car growth has been mostly gradual, at only 18 percent between 1978 and 2001. By contrast, light truck registrations have soared. In 1978, there were 25.5 million light trucks on the road. In 2001, there were 84.2 million -- a 230-percent increase.
In general, consumers have opted for SUVs and other light trucks because they're big, they hold a lot of stuff and they can carry many passengers.
The rub is that many of them don't go far on a gallon of gasoline. The Ford Explorer, the nation's most popular SUV, barely gets 20 miles per gallon on the highway, compared with 30 miles per gallon for a Ford Focus, a small car.
Some SUVs -- such as the Hummer H2 -- are so large that they fall outside the limits for which the federal government certifies fuel economy.
Even so, today's light trucks use less gas than they did 26 years ago. In 1978, light trucks went 11.6 miles on a gallon of gasoline. In 2001, light trucks averaged 17.6 miles on a gallon of gas.
Last year, the United States used an average of 8.94 million barrels of gasoline a day and this year is averaging 8.8 million barrels -- at 42 gallons per barrel -- a day through March, up 2.8 percent from the first quarter last year.
Other factors involved
Some experts aren't convinced that light trucks are moving prices higher.
Ron Planting, an economist with the American Petroleum Institute, said global crude oil demand, especially in Asia, is influencing prices more than SUVs.
"If it were all due to gradual trends, we would have seen a gradual rise in prices as well," Planting said.
Some experts pointed to the explosion of the auto industry in China for the spike in worldwide demand for fuel. The Asia-Pacific region consumed 21.9 million barrels of petroleum in 2003, up from 11.5 million barrels a day in 1987.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries also has slashed oil production, which is straining supplies, Planting said.
Experts also pointed to limited refining capacity. The last U.S. refinery was built in 1976 and it is doubtful that others will be built because of stringent pollution controls and the overall public distaste for having a refinery built in a community, experts said.
"People are going to want more oil and inventories are going to be stressed to the limits," said AAA Michigan spokesman Jim Rink.
Contact JOCELYN PARKER at 313-222-5391 or at email@example.com.