31 comments

A Little Lesson on Gasoline

Just a little internet video today, that Mrs. M. stumbled across. It’s a quick explanation for beginners on the life of gasoline before and after you use it for driving.

The lesson is obvious for the more environmentally-minded folks, but I figured it is still worth sharing because the average US driver doesn’t think about much other than the numbers that appear on the pump display when they buy gas. In fact, this line of reasoning is so common that I ignored all external and social costs when I wrote up the true cost of commuting – figuring that there’s no sense trying to make a point using information most people don’t care about.

Even if the calculations in the video end up being imprecise, the real message is that when deciding how much gas to burn, the pump price should really be the last thing we think about. The first priority is burning the smallest amount that is practical.

I think of the cheap gas we have here in the US as a guilty pleasure. It is great for me personally that it costs virtually nothing to fuel a car. But I still don’t want to waste it with loads of frivolous driving (or driving an inefficient car or truck) because I don’t want to be a big douchebag towards everyone else and burn out the lungs of their children with Benzene and soot and flood them with rising sea levels.

I don’t mean to get overly crunchy granola hippy on you here. You should think of this little post as a positive rather than negative message: by learning to live a more fuel-efficient life, you’re mainly making yourself richer and happier. But you’re also delivering an even bigger difference for everyone else in the world with each gallon you save. So you’re becoming a Rich Mustachian – but you’re also becoming a hero.

  • rjack November 9, 2011, 10:19 am

    Yet another good reason to feel good about being Mustachian! Personally, I think the government should start taxing the sh*t out of gas to help give everybody a financial incentive to drive less.

    Reply
    • Chris November 9, 2011, 11:04 am

      The best argument I’ve heard against a federal tax on harmful substances like gasoline (and cigarettes) is twofold. The first element is that the government shouldn’t be making money off of the poor health of its constituents, which gasoline use certainly contributes to. The second element is that if the government becomes reliant upon the income from such a tax, there is actually an incentive for the government to promote the use of fossil fuels. This means that a well meaning effort to decrease gasoline use and carbon emissions (and all other negative effects) can actually perpetuate precisely the system it aims to counteract.

      I believe (based on what I’ve read) that there are relatively substantial subsidies and tax breaks for oil companies. These indirectly keep the market price of gasoline down, while actually costing the government money. In lieu of direct taxes, the best first step is probably to remove or reduce these subsidies so that the price Americans pay for gasoline more closely reflects the fair market value (and the price in the rest of the world). It’ll be a shock at first, and there are plenty of unpredictable economic consequences to worry about, but in the long run we’ll almost certainly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels as Americans adapt to higher prices.

      Reply
      • qhartman November 9, 2011, 11:23 am

        Good points. Subsidies for established industries are foolish. In my opinion, any subsidy program should have a non-renewable sunset date. In some cases there is a legitimate argument for public backing of new private ventures, but after the initial startup time the venture needs to stand on its’ own.

        Reply
      • rjack November 9, 2011, 11:26 am

        Chris,

        I agree that the government should eliminate tax breaks for oil companies.

        ” The first element is that the government shouldn’t be making money off of the poor health of its constituents, which gasoline use certainly contributes to.”

        This doesn’t make sense. If gas consumption causes ill health, shouldn’t it be taxed to promote the common good? By this argument, we shouldn’t tax cigarettes either.

        “The second element is that if the government becomes reliant upon the income from such a tax, there is actually an incentive for the government to promote the use of fossil fuels.”

        This makes no sense to me either. This would only be the case if the government was for profit which it is not. It would be using taxes to alter the behavior of its citizens.

        Reply
        • Chris November 9, 2011, 11:42 am

          I suppose the issue stems from how the government should attempt to promote the common good. Taxes act as a negative reinforcement for bad behavior, but in this case they just become accepted as the norm and don’t have much effect. In my view, a better solution is to provide positive reinforcement for good behavior (in this scenario, improved infrastructure for bikers, cheap and reliable public transportation, etc.). I think the same is true for cigarettes – I don’t have much familiarity with the subject, but it seems to me that more people quit because they’ve been educated about the negative effects and wish to avoid them than because they can’t afford two packs a day anymore.

          In addition, despite the government not being a for-profit organization, it still values every dollar it can get. Considering the repeated annual deficit, I think it’s fair to say that a decrease in tax revenue would have repercussions that the government would attempt to avoid. Even if it were just to slow down the decrease in dependence to give the tax system more time to acclimate, there is the potential for unintended negative effects.

          Reply
          • Grant November 13, 2011, 2:45 am

            with regard to a government becoming dependant on a questionable tax source, it is evident here where I live in NSW, Australia. The state government gets a ridiculous amount of its revenue from gambling, and Aus has the 7th highest number of poker machines (aka gaming machines) in the world (NOTE: NOT per capita).

            There are a number of movements try to reduce the dependancy of gambling for the states income, but they are not very successful

            Reply
        • Troy March 14, 2014, 8:48 pm

          Half the price of a pack of cigarettes is tax. This is a huge tax on the poor, who are more likely to smoke than the rich or middle class. Using taxes to control behavior is never a good idea.

          Reply
    • Brave New Life November 9, 2011, 5:09 pm

      Too bad that the money raised would be used to fund wars to keep gas prices low. ;)

      Reply
      • MMM November 9, 2011, 8:09 pm

        Much more so if you vote Republican in the US, however.

        They are in favor of low energy prices as a means of stimulating the economy, while Obama actually wants to introduce a carbon tax that would make energy more expensive over time (but refund the money in the form of tax cuts so that average energy consumers would still end up equally well off).

        Over time, this would make energy-intensive things more expensive, and energy-efficient things cheaper. The government would not be slowing down the economy on a net basis, but it would be creating a much-needed incentive to waste less energy.

        It’s a hardcore capitalist solution to an otherwise difficult problem. If we temporarily increase our oil supply for a short-term price drop, we get a quick economic boost, and a higher appetite for cheap energy. Then when supply becomes tight again due to increasing demand, the price goes up. But in this situation, the higher price is going to our oil-exporting neighbors, rather than our own tax revenue base.

        Reply
    • Matt November 10, 2011, 9:43 am

      Speaking of taxing the sh*t out of gas look at this chart:

      http://moneytipcentral.com/wp-content/uploads/High-Gas-Prices.jpg

      I always thought the cheap gas in the USA was a result of better bargaining or economic standing. This graph shows that it’s the tax that countries levy that determines the end price at the pump.

      Reply
  • Gaspode November 9, 2011, 10:51 am

    Gas prices being so massively inflationary, how about targetted rationing? Ration gas usage for ordinary drivers but allocate enough for transport of food and goods so that those costs aren’t debilitating, until we can get off our collective arses and rebuild practical rail. A market could evolve for trading/selling ration chits among those who drive less or more, and creating a strong incentive for conservation but without the inflationary effects. Doing this say, forty years ago, Carter era, imagine the country we could have built by now, for example, without the extensive zombie-lands of suburbia. Better late than never…

    Reply
  • qhartman November 9, 2011, 11:06 am

    Good find. I’ll be sharing this one around. Particularly interesting in connection with the local food discussion we’ve been having.

    The things mentioned in that video are the primary reasons I drive a car that runs on biodiesel. Virtually all of those externalities are reduced or eliminated. Of course, the degree that happens will vary widely depending on the producer and what their feed oil is. I get mine from Sequential Biofuels in Oregon: http://www.sqbiofuels.com/

    They use primarily waste oils. A lot of biodiesel producers use new soybean oil, which re-introduces a lot of those externalities…

    Reply
  • Geek November 9, 2011, 11:24 am

    Don’t forget the stress cost of driving places in traffic, and the toll that so much sitting takes on you.

    As far as taxes, eliminating some subsidies may have the same effect as raising taxes, but it is also likely to eliminate jobs. A gradual change is more desirable.
    Is there a good way to incentivise energy companies to focus on renewable and move jobs there, instead of destroying the oil industry and picking up the pieces?

    For the individual – perhaps we can informally game-ify Mustachian principles?

    Reply
    • qhartman November 9, 2011, 11:32 am

      I was actually thinking of the game-ifying thing the other night. I was imagining a smartphone app / website which would act as a simple financial management tool, but would also give you points when you transferred money to savings, rode your bike to work, made dinner instead of going out, etc, etc. There would be a maximum number of points available each day, determined by the behavior of an idealized “MMM Paragon” who was living the perfect theoretical Mustacian life. Once you had your choices in there, you could see how many points you were leaving on the table and use that as feedback to shape your habits. I don’t know how useful or “fun” it would actually be to use, but I thought it would be a fun project to build.

      Reply
    • Brave New Life November 9, 2011, 5:14 pm

      Excellent point about stress. I’m very impatient and used to get very stressed waiting in traffic. I also got stressed when I had a $500 car repair out of the blue. Now, the only stress I get is when I need to cross the street on my bicycle and have to wait 30 seconds while all the oversized trucks and suv’s whiz by.

      Reply
  • steveinFL November 9, 2011, 12:14 pm

    The Story of Stuff opened my eyes to the true cost of consumerism a few years ago. This article reinforces my desire to sell my car and become a 1 carlite family again. We can’t go car free because my wife is disabled and that would be too hard on her.

    After 3 years of driving 40 miles roundtrip to work, I finally was persuaded by MMM’s “True cost of commuting” and a recent $1000 car repair bill to give the TriRail commuter train a shot.

    I’d rather bike, but am unwilling to make my 1hr round trip commute into a 3+ hour bike ride. Believe me, I’ve tried it and thought about eBikes and scooters too.

    So until I can sell my house and move closer to work, or better yet retire early, I decided to give the train a shot.

    After 1 week of riding my feedback is “I’m an idiot for not doing this sooner”.

    Cost- Train wins. I get a 25% employee discount so my weekly fare is about 75% of my weekly gas cost. If I factor in repairs, registrations, insurance and maintenance (at least $2-3K annually), I come out far ahead.

    Drive Time- Train wins. Door to door time is slightly faster by car when traffic is perfect. However, this is I95 in Florida. One accident, one rainstorm or 1 car on fire, and traffic is backed up for an hour.

    Convenience- Car wins. I can leave at any anytime and don’t need to plan my start/stop times around the train times. However the train has been ontime 100% of the time for a week so planning around it isn’t difficult.

    Stress – Train wins by a landslide. Instead of a high speed bumper to bumper death race twice a day, I glide by at 60MPH reading MMM on my iphone. Plus, my chances of an accident or death are almost nil. I arrive at work refreshed from a 10 minute walk from the station. I arrive home after a long day decompressed and relaxed.

    Fun- The people on the train are interesting. The conversations are engaging. And I can always call someone, do email, read a book, watch the scenery or nap.

    Next Step: Let my car sit in the driveway unused for a month or so and then convince my wife that we should sell it and become a 1 car family. Then I’ll save another 120/month in insurance, $250 in annual registrations and $1000s in maintenance per year. And I’ll use the mini ‘stache I make as another payment toward paying off my mortgage thus accelerating my road to retirement.

    Reply
    • qhartman November 9, 2011, 12:33 pm

      That’s awesome. I work for the University of Oregon in Eugene, and one of the unexpected perks of that is that my UO ID card acts as a bus pass. I’ve been using the bus to commute a lot as a result, and I agree with your take on the pros and cons. The trouble I have is that the AM bus is almost always late, which forces me to take an earlier bus than I’d like to get to work on time since I can’t trust the supposedly optimal one. As a result, my commute takes a LOT longer than it would by car, but knowing I’m saving a few bucks and that my car is at home with my wife and child should they need it makes it worth it to me.

      Reply
    • Mrs. Money Mustache November 9, 2011, 12:34 pm

      Wow! Great story. Very inspiring. Imagine if we all tried something new like this every once in a while to challenge our thinking. And, I suspect there’s a reason all little kids are obsessed with trains… ;)

      Reply
  • Mr. Frugal Toque November 9, 2011, 12:32 pm

    Gamifying could probably work for a while. It’s like all those weight loss regimens back in the 1980s. There was one with cards, one with coins etc. etc. Each one was a way to count your calories and your exercise. Each one worked for a little while until the novelty wore off. If you didn’t enjoy exercising and being in shape – or in this case, being a non-consumer – it didn’t last.

    But I agree, it would be a fun app to write. Also, it would be interesting to see what the MMM Paragon baseline would really look like.

    If there isn’t an XKCD comic for it, there’s an SMBC comic for it:
    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2286#comic

    Reply
    • qhartman November 9, 2011, 12:36 pm

      I love that SMBC, one of my all time faves of his. I agree that people would probably pretty quickly lose interest in the game element, but hopefully it would hold their interest long enough to open their eyes and/or start some habit changing.

      Reply
  • Pete November 9, 2011, 2:59 pm

    I can’t believe you didn’t spot the logical fallacies in the video.

    The law of conservation of mass rules out their greenhouse gas model. three pounds of carbon dioxide are not produced for every gallon refined… that would mean refineries would lose money at any price.

    Reply
    • MMM November 9, 2011, 8:00 pm

      Uh-oh! I hope your first-year chemistry professor doesn’t read that comment! (Or are you posting a scientific-sounding rebuttal without any background in chemistry at all??)

      During the refining, some of the oil/gas is burned to create heat for the various stages of the refining. When you burn gasoline, which is mostly carbon, you are actually reacting it with mostly oxygen from the atmosphere.

      Each carbon atom bonds to two oxygen atoms – C02. This end product weighs more than three times the original weight of the carbon atoms. The net of all of this is that each gallon of gasoline burned produces almost TWENTY pounds of C02. Since only a fraction of each gallon is burned during refining, the number is smaller – only 3 pounds.

      Reply
    • Everett November 14, 2013, 2:34 am

      MMM is right. For a more detailed explanation check out the link below

      http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2006/11/how_gasoline_becomes_co2.html

      Reply
  • Posted on November 9, 2011, 3:59 pm

    Here is another helpful link when trying to decipher all this green-house-gas verbiage.

    http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/co2.shtml

    Reply
  • Al November 10, 2011, 1:03 am

    Add the cost of wars in there and the real cost of a gallon would be much higher again. I believe that externalities are the main reason that “green” energy is still not that widespread. If we were paying the true cost at the pump, we’d already be using superior energy sources.

    Reply
  • Yabusame November 11, 2011, 6:49 am

    I’m no sandal-wearing liberal, but I went car-free in July. Initially, I did it for financial reasons as I wanted to pay off my consumer debt as quickly as possible. Several months later, the debt is gone but I have no intention of ever buying a car again.

    I feel a little smug in not owning a car. I see cars everywhere and I know how much they cost to own, run, and maintain. I don’t have that worry. But how have I been getting to work since selling the car?

    I’ve been commuting to work on the motorbike but now that winter is approaching I’ve just put the bike in hibernation for the winter season and I’ve been using the bus instead. The bus probably comes out cheaper than running a motorbike but it increases my round trip commute from 50 minutes to 2.25 hours (the bike is cheaper in petrol than the weekly bus pass, but when I include maintenance and taxes etc then the bus wins). So, why do I still have a motorbike?

    Well, I don’t mind paying that little extra for the convenience of getting to work on time. In addition, I use the motorbike for pleasure too, exploring new places and the like (rode it to Berlin recently).

    Do I miss the car? Not at all. I like the feeling of not owning one. OK, I admit that the motorbike uses petrol too, and that has costs associated with it that I could live without, but I like the freedom the bike gives me at the moment. Besides, I’m taking one step at a time, at least let me enjoy getting rid of the car first before I turn a jaded eye towards to the motorbike.

    Reply
  • Moxie November 19, 2011, 12:35 pm

    Discliamer 1: Rant to follow about the need for lessons on topics other than the “cheapness” of gasoline…

    In rich countries like the US, it isn’t just gasoline that’s cheap. We are using so many more appliances and gadgets who have a true cost that is much greater than the upfront price to purchase at the store. And the rest of the world is trying to catch up because we’ve been so good at marketing many of these things as necessities or entitlements, even!

    Many (most, even) of these appliances were originally created to improve quality of life–Perhaps they saved time, saved women’s backs [from hard manual labor], or freed children to go to school instead of doing household work & paid labor.

    I hear lots of “green-minded” folk complain about how “soon, everyone in China will want a car, and be polluting so many more greenhouse gases with their 2B+ population on the road”. And I wonder, why are people in China or India and less “entitled” to drive a car (or to have electrically heated hot water piped directly to their faucet) than people in Germany, the US, or Australia?

    What will make more of a difference than one person in the US shedding a car is for us to advocate for the design & building of increasingly energy efficient [ideally carbon-neutral] appliances that are cheaper and more accessible to everyone. With the exponential population growth heavily attributable to so-called “poorer Nations”, let’s only hope they have access to renewable sources of electricity, and that their governments are subsidizing “green” products on their race for industrialization.

    And let’s be model citizens to them, as well! In the wealthier countries, why do we accept that the ERE or MMM lifestyle “will never be mainstream”?

    Let’s hold others around us to become accountable and hold more of the same ERE & MMM values that are better for the planet, as well as our pocketbooks. How do we get individuals to live more with less? And how do we get corporations to act in the best interests of future generations–while recognizing they’ve got a need to please existing shareholders at the same time? [Unless the OWS movement is able to change that any time soon.. I'm not holding my breath, though.]

    Instead of just taxing gasoline more (which I’m not adverse to doing), why don’t we also tax those who manufacture the gas guzzling cars (and lawnmowers!) & the inefficient tank-style water heaters, and housing developers who make houses without sufficient thermal mass, grey water recycling systems, or insulating windows? And I’d really love to see factory farms fined for their devastation to the environment & public health, as well as the city dump charging more so that people start to understand the real cost of “dumping” waste. It’s more than the $10/month for curb-side pick up.

    This 9-minute TED talk has more food for thought on the world’s energy consumption level today, and some models for projected usage in 2050: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/hans_rosling_and_the_magic_washing_machine.html (If 9 minutes is too long for you, start at minute 4 and watch the last 5.)

    Reply
  • ConsciouslyFrugal November 23, 2011, 11:42 am

    Mr. MM! It’s been awhile. Ms. Beany over at Brown Girl in the Lane linked this puppy. Anyhoo, I killed my car a little over a year ago and couldn’t be happier as a result of the change. Granted, I now have great sympathy for cops who beat the living hell out of people after spending a year riding through the roughest parts of LA via train, but it still beats driving any day.

    I really appreciate that you noted our lungs in this whole cost process. LA’s gift to me upon arrival was asthma. My god, how my lungs used to hurt when I first moved here. So awful, yet everyone will tell you how much better it is than back int he day! I don’t hurt anymore, thankfully, I just have diminished capacity. Oh, cars. How you effing suck.

    Reply
  • cgc007 January 29, 2014, 2:23 am

    “I don’t mean to get overly crunchy granola hippy on you here”

    That elicited a chuckle from me. =)

    Reply
  • John Dwyer February 24, 2014, 9:11 pm

    I’ve not seen much mention of electric vehicles. I also think that if you live in the sun belt you should have a solar array. Anyone take a look at the CO2 output of a coal burning plant for our electricity? I have a full solar array in Texas and its wonderful. I’ve got 2 hybrids but ideally I’d like to get an electric vehicle and let the grid charge it. Ideally I want to ride my bike everywhere. Unfortunately Texas is not the most bike friendly place. Maybe someday I’ll move to MMM’s town. I’ve found the small Colorado cities to be amazing regarding biking. I wish that was the trend for all cities across the United States.

    Reply

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