Hot Fuel is a Hot Topic

Early this July I attended the National Conference on Weights and Measures, held at the Snowbird Ski Resort outside Salt Lake City, Utah.

The big issue was what to do about the “hot fuel” issue. These are my observations of those proceedings.

July 31, 2007—Television coverage from KTUL in Tulsa.
Since September 2006 the issue of “hot fuel” has gained increasing attention in the media, among consumer groups and even in Congress. The debate over this problem, or whether there even is a problem, has been spurred by record-high gasoline prices and focused attention on the topic of automatic temperature compensation, or ATC.

The “hot fuel” debate originates from the arbitrary 60°F standard used for almost a century and some basic physics. Heat expands liquids and cooler temperatures contract them. Gasoline changes volume about 1% for every 15°F of temperature change. So if you take 100 gallons of 60°F gasoline and warm it to 75°F, you’ll have 101 gallons. Conversely, cool it to 45°F and you’ve only got 99 gallons. Consumers who purchase warm gasoline, proponents argue, are paying for more than they are really getting.

Temperature compensation is simply a method of calculating the expansion or contraction rate as the fuel is metered. This can be done automatically, if you have a way to measure the temperature of the fuel, or the calculation can be “hard wired” into the meter and assume a given temperature. The mechanics of pumping your gas do not change– only the gallons displayed on the pump are different.

This idea of automatic temperature compensation is not new; it was widely discussed in the late Seventies, another era of rising fuel prices. At that time it was deemed technically unfeasible and an unnecessary expense. Most of America’s retail gasoline inventory was found to be pretty close to that 60°F temperature. But today some things have changed, and the idea of ATC is gaining traction.

Back in the Seventies most gasoline was stored in a single-wall steel tank buried underground. Today the fiberglass tank is more common, and almost all tanks are double-wall, regardless of composition. The dead space between those tank walls is an insulator, and makes a modern underground storage tank act like a giant travel mug. While fuel in older tanks typically maintained a temperature close to the surrounding soil temperature, today’s storage tank insulates the fuel and it takes much longer for the temperature to normalize. Add to this the increased number of aboveground storage tanks and warmer refiner-direct deliveries, and you have the case for the argument that America’s fuel today is warmer than it was in the Seventies.

As media attention increased and Congressional investigations began, there was more attention paid to the regulations and laws governing the retail sale of vehicle fuel in America. Enter the National Conference on Weights and Measures. Each July this group, with delegates from each State, meet to discuss the finer points of measuring, labeling and packaging just about anything and everything. This little-known body is a powerful voice in this arena because many states adopt regulations from their Handbook 44 as law. As the July date for their 92nd annual meeting approached this usually unremarkable conference was receiving national media attention. It was amid this flurry of political and media attention I packed my bags and prepared to head off to Salt Lake City to see for myself.

Upon arrival it was immediately clear this meeting was being held under increased scrutiny. The attendees’ registration packets included three letters supporting the temperature compensation proposal. One from a consortium of consumer advocacy groups and two from members of Congress. As the technical presentations and open hearing began it was obvious this “hot topic” was controversial. This was partly due to the language of the proposal, or lack thereof.

The specifics of the amendment being considered set forth guidelines for jurisdictions implementing temperature compensation. The guidelines were not mandatory and offered no dates or deadlines. Likewise, they provided no direction on precisely how the compensation would be calculated, beyond the 60°F baseline and a distinction between gasoline and diesel. Basically all it stated was if temperature compensation was used it had to be calculated automatically, all receipts must state the sale was compensated for temperature and it must be used year-round. But the brevity of the amendment did not work to its advantage.

The floor was opened for comments and the hailstorm began. Critics complained the issue had been politicized and any affirmation regarding temperature compensation would lead to widespread adoption of ATC and higher costs to the consumer. Regulators cited the lack of specifics and pleaded with the committee to abort the vote altogether. Some argued not making ATC mandatory would only increase consumer irritation at the pump. Several state delegates also pointed out their statutes require retail motor fuel be sold by the gross gallon, thus precluding them from even considering any such proposal. By the end of the hearing it looked like “hot fuel” was a hot potato without any chance of approval.

When it came time for the vote it was readily apparent no consensus had been reached. After almost an hour of comments, that were essentially a repeat of the previous day’s testimony, a motion was made to postpone the vote until the 2008 conference. Before the chairman could even rule if that was valid another motion was made to appeal the previous one. Eventually four votes on motions, amendments and recounts were made before the original proposal was finally considered. As each vote transpired it appeared that support for the amendment was increasing, quite the opposite effect intended by the delegate who issued the first motion.

In the end a majority of the participants chose to support the proposal. However, the bylaws of the NCWM require 27 votes for approval (regardless of the number of states actually in attendance). Falling short by only three votes, the amendment went back to its committee– presumably to reappear at the 93rd annual NCWM meeting. Only time will tell if Congress or state legislators will wait that long for their decision, or make it for them.

One thought on “Hot Fuel is a Hot Topic”

  1. Channel 8 is doing a report on this topic tonight at 10:00. They interviewed me last week so maybe you’ll get to see my mug on the

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