Individually California consumers spend about sixteen dollars more than necessary each time they fill their gas tanks or about $600 a year on average. Collectively California consumers purchase 14 billion gallons of gasoline each year. In other words, we’re spending $15 billion a year more than what we would if gasoline prices equaled the national average. The benefit-cost ratio of those expenditures is as close to zero as you can get.
Fuel costs are a major budget item for many California businesses. High gasoline and diesel prices have impacts beyond what can be seen at the pump.
One big contributor to the price difference is the “special formulation” for gasoline in California. Think of it as special gasoline for a special state. The formulation is the brainchild of the California Air Resources Board, possibly the most powerful and destructive bureaucracy ever created by a single state.
The special formulation supposedly creates less air pollution than gasoline sold in the other 49 states. Unfortunately, there are only a small number of refineries capable of producing the special formulation. That fact leads to other costly problems. The small number of refineries restricts supply and reduces competitive pressure resulting in higher prices. Whenever a refinery is out of commission prices spike. That happens on a fairly regular basis.
Another culprit in California’s elevated gasoline price is the “California Carbon Tax Law of 2014.” The tax took effect at the beginning of 2015. It mandates that petroleum suppliers buy “pollution permits” for the greenhouse gases generated by the fuel they deliver. At this point, how this complicated law is actually going to play out and how the revenue is to be used is anyone’s guess. At the present time a permit for producing a ton of CO2 is roughly $12.
The law “finds and declares” that “Global warming poses a serious threat to the economic well-being, public health, natural resources, and environment of California. The adverse impacts of global warming include the exacerbation of air quality problems, drought, fires, and an increase in the incidences of infectious diseases, asthma, and other human health problems.” We’re doomed!
The authors of the law could not resist the opportunity for patting themselves on the back: “California has long been a national and international leader on energy conservation efforts through energy efficiency requirements, renewable energy standards, natural resource conservation, and greenhouse gas emission standards for passenger vehicles.” Californians are so lucky to have such wonderful politicians watching out for their well-being.
Will not higher gasoline prices disproportionately impact low income earners? Not to worry. They thought about that already: “It is the intent of the Legislature that revenues collected under this part be rebated to taxpayers, particularly low- and medium-income taxpayers, of other taxes imposed under this code. In that regard, implementation of the carbon tax is intended to be revenue neutral.” Isn’t that clever? Devilish details yet to be determined.
Politicians and environmentalists do not consider high fuel prices to even be a problem. In fact, they applaud them. The state’s Carbon Tax Law is deliberately designed to increase the price of gasoline and diesel fuel for California consumers. The law states, “The prices of fossil fuels in California’s energy markets do not reflect the true cost to society of the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels and the release of carbon dioxide into the environment.” Once again politicians have declared that the price system isn’t working properly and it’s their job to put that right.
Although not unique to California, fuel prices are also made unnecessarily high because of the federal “Renewable Fuels Standard.” That’s the widely criticized law that mandates blending ethanol with gasoline. California’s enthusiasm for that law is above and beyond that of most other states.
The RFS adds insult to injury because ethanol has only about two-thirds as much energy per gallon as compared to gasoline. Consequently, E10 (ten percent ethanol) results in “3 to 4 percent fewer miles per gallon” than with pure gasoline according to Fueleconomy.gov.
Retailers in most states give consumers a choice between straight gasoline and E10. In California you are prohibited from using straight gasoline on streets and highways. Since ethanol does damage to small engines (lawnmowers and chain saws, for example) Californians have been graciously allowed to purchase straight gasoline. Relatively few dealers exist, however, and the price is significantly higher (currently $5.46 per gallon at one local dealer) than for E10. Dealers are heavily fined if they get caught putting pure gasoline into automobiles.
The Renewable Fuels Standard not only increases the price of fuel, it also does additional damage by raising food prices. Because of the ethanol mandates, 40 percent of the nation’s corn production goes to fuel not food. Everyone in the country, not just Californians, is paying more for food because of the RFS.
Still another contributor to the unusually high gasoline prices in the state is the above average gasoline tax. Nationally the average gasoline tax is $.49. The California tax is $.69 per gallon for gasoline and $.79 per gallon for diesel. Are streets and highways better in California than other states? Not noticeably.
Complaints about California’s high gasoline prices are surprisingly rare. Why more Californians don’t complain about how they’re getting soaked by the state’s politicians is a mystery. Maybe this summer as many of them drive through other states on their vacations, more of them will become aware of the totally unnecessary damage being done to their budgets. Maybe they will start screaming and hollering. They certainly have reason to.
◼ California Gasoline Prices: The Damage Done May 21, 2015
Ron Ross Ph.D. is a former economics professor and author of The Unbeatable Market. Ron resides in Arcata, California and is a founder of Premier Financial Group, a wealth management firm located in Eureka, California. He is a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.