California drivers are bucking a national trend by burning less fuel
Gary Richards - InsideBayArea.com August 1, 2007
It's the peak of the summer driving season, crude oil hit an all-time high Tuesday of $78 a barrel, and, still, somehow, gas prices in California have been steadily sliding.
In fact, at $3.07 a gallon, the average cost of gas in the state isn't much more and in a few cases it's actually cheaper than it is in several other states. That only happens once a decade or so.
Wondering what gives?
Here's one big reason: California drivers are bucking a national trend by burning less fuel. The state Board of Equalization reported Tuesday that gas use fell by nearly 1 percent in April, the most recent month for which it has statistics. That's down by 101/2 million gallons from a year ago and follows four straight quarters where Californians have used less gas than they did during the same period the year before.
Meanwhile, U.S. drivers have consumed a record 388 million gallons of gas on average every day during the first half of the year, up 11/2 percent from the same time a year ago, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
"This is fascinating," said Betty Yee, chairwoman of the Board of Equalization, which tracks the sales tax revenue collected from gas purchases. "Californians seem to be on the leading edge again," adding that while April's drop is less than1 percent "it represents a persistent trend in consumer behavior."
Californians burned almost 16 billion gallons in 2005, a figure that fell to 15.8 billion last year. The state is on pace to be even lower this year.
Experts say a sustained rise in prices may be behind the change in driver behavior in California. Paying $45 to fill up a Camry or $95 for a large sport utility vehicle over a period of many months may have led enough drivers to slow down, change their commuting habits, keep their tires inflated or look to purchase cars that get better than 30 miles per gallon.
Cutting back in the short term is difficult and now that prices nationally are closer to California's, motorists across the country are starting to grapple with that, said Sean Comey, who tracks energy use for the state auto club.
California's lower prices have other causes: The state's refineries are running at nearly full tilt and they are largely over the maintenance problems that plagued production earlier this year. In addition, imports and production both have risen. The California Energy Commission reported an increase of more than 1 million barrels of oil per day between last week and mid-July.
Yet changes in driving patterns can't be overlooked.
Just don't get complacent, analysts say. The state is expected to add 500,000 to 600,000 residents a year in the next several decades, surely taxing refineries' ability to produce enough of California's special blend of gasoline.
And if prices continue to ease or if drivers get accustomed to paying at least $3 a gallon will they go back to driving faster and not caring about the cost of a fill-up?
"That's the $64,000 question," said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for Western States Petroleum. "The honest answer is we don't know."
We can hope, but nobody can predict if this will continue." [Read More]