Gas Price Elasticity
The Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy began tracking weekly gasoline prices in 1990 by means of a survey of 800 service stations around the country. The average retail price for unleaded gasoline posted its fourth record high during the week of June 12, 2000, increasing 5 cents a gallon to an average of $1.681. The price at the pump is higher than the same period last year by 56 cents and has risen 16.2 cents over the past month (Anonymous, 2000).
How far will it rise? What will consumers do about the dramatic increases that are occurring with the arrival of each shipment? Price elasticity of demand would indicate that demand will fall as prices continue to rise, which in turn should result in a reduction of prices and a subsequent increase in demand. Such may prove to be the case, but the scenario is an unlikely one.
Prices have increased all over the country, but price increases in the Midwest have been even more dramatic than in other areas. Across the region, prices are averaging $1.874 for a gallon of unleaded, but that same product is well over $2 a gallon in many of the cities of the Midwest. Higher grades average $2.003 across the region, marking the first time that average prices have been so high in a specific region of the country (Anonymous, 2000). There is so much concern over the rising prices that apparently are continuing to rise without abatement that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has “opened a formal investigation into soaring gasoline prices in some areas of the Midwest and will begin issuing subpoenas to oil companies by the end of the week” (Hebert, 2000; p. aol).
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. believes that the oil companies will reduce prices right away once the subpoenas begin to appear, and the country’s vice president has mentioned that collusion may be behind the oil companies’ huge profits this year (Hebert, 2000). The summer driving season always brings higher prices in response to heightened demand, but never to the extent seen this year.
Of course the final cost of gasoline at the pump is affected by the price of a barrel of crude, but to a lesser extent than oil producers would have consumers believe. The price of crude accounts for only 30 percent of the final cost to the consumer (Brodrick, 2000a). In 1981, the cost of crude accounted for 62 percent of the final cost at the pump. The difference today is that producers of crude have much less power over the final cost of gasoline than they did in prior years. The oil producing nations in the Mideast currently are meeting to discuss increasing production so that crude prices will decline from its current price of more than $30 a barrel to the region of $25 (Georgy, 2000).
The American Petroleum Institute reports that 32.6 percent of the final cost to the consumer is the refiner’s share that covers the cost of refining and provides the oil companies with their profit (Brodrick, 2000a). The government’s share is greater, however. “Taxes account for 37.4 percent of gasoline costs and averaged 41.5 cents per gallon in 1999, according to the institute. The federal government’s share is 18.4 cents, and the state takes about 23 cents. Occasionally, local municipalities tack on an extra tax” (Brodrick, 2000a; p. 000215b).
The price is further affected by locale. The Midwest typically is one of the highest-priced regions in the nation because it is the most difficult section for transportation. Distance from refineries is prohibitive, and refineries are saying that the current high prices in the region have resulted from problems with using a pipeline that eases transportation costs.
The retailer’s price increase to the final consumer is between 4 and 8 cents a gallon, meaning that there is little option for the consumer to shop on price. Further, consolidation has been active in oil as in other industries. A different brand name does not signify that the gasoline is being sold by different companies. BP owns Amoco; Shell has an alliance with Texaco. Exxon and Mobil have been merged for years. The end result is that there is little price competition at