Rumor has it a gas boycott will be in effect on May 15, 2007. Have you heard of this? ... The e-mail stated, "Do not buy gas on May 15. In April 1997, there was a 'gas out' conducted nationwide in protest of gas prices. Gasoline dropped 30 cents a gallon overnight. … There are 73,000,000-plus Americans currently on the Internet network, and the average car takes about $30 to $50 to fill up. If all users did not go to the pump on the 15th, it would take $2,292,000,000 out of the rich oil company’s pockets for just one day. So please do not go to the gas station on May 15, and let’s try to put a dent in the Middle Eastern oil industry for at least one day."
—Greg M., Lake Charles, La.
With gasoline prices topping $3 a gallon again, a number of readers, including Greg in Louisiana, are wondering about a proposed one-day "gas boycott" that has a goal of taking $2.3 billion in oil company profits. Aside from circulating some questionable math, organizers of this event stand exactly zero chance of having an impact on gas prices.
Let's start with the price impact of that alleged “gas out.” In the first week of April 1997, the average price of a gallon of gasoline nationwdie was $1.248. By the end of the month, the weekly average was $1.24. If there was a one-day drop of 30 cents a gallon, it doesn’t show up in the statistics compiled by the Department of Energy. (We realize that many readers who are passionate about pump prices believe that this government agency is just a shill for the oil industry, ready to cover up what’s “really going on.” But humor us just this once.)
The real problem with this idea is that — as some versions of this e-mail helpfully suggest —these "boycotters" simply top off their tanks May 14 or wait to fill them up May 16. All that does is shift sales from one day to another. Any money “lost” from lower gasoline sales on May 15 will be made up with higher sales on the days before and after the “boycott.”
To have a real financial impact, you’d have to figure out how to get people to keep their cars off the road for the whole day — cutting actual consumption.
Based on current demand of about 386 million gallons a day, at $3 a gallon, the total value of gasoline sold daily in the U.S. comes to almost $1.2 billion. But that’s the total retail value — the pot of money that’s divvied up along a chain of oil producers, pipeline operators, refiners, wholesalers, truckers and retailers. Let’s follow the chain and see who gets to keep what.
The biggest chunk of change — about 53 percent of the pump price of each gallon of gasoline — goes to pay for the crude oil used to make it. So in theory, $624 million of the “boycott” would “hit the pockets” of oil producers, whether domestic or foreign.
True, if you suddenly took 10 million barrels of oil off the market for a day, you might knock the spot market price of crude down a notch. But much of the oil sold every day is priced under long-term contracts. So if your 10 million barrels went undelivered for 24 hours, you wouldn’t change the price that a refiner had already paid for it. Even if, for some reason, that 10 million barrels went unsold, it would still be sitting in the ground with an oil producer's name on it, ready to be sold later — possibly at a higher, and more profitable, price.
About 19 percent of the pump price of each gallon represents taxes. So the next big chunk of cash from a day’s worth of unsold gasoline — about $228 million — would come out of the budgets of federal, state and local governments, not oil industry profits. Since that money is used to pay for programs and purchases that have already been approved, you’d have to make up the difference by raising other taxes, or cutting spending, or some combination.
Now comes the part that makes most would-be boycotters see red: the refiners' cut. Another 19 percent of our $1.2 billion in daily gasoline purchases pays for the cost of making the gasoline, including the refiners’ profits. That money also goes to pay refinery workers’ salaries, new equipment, maintenance and all the other costs of running a business.
So just how much goes to “line oil refiners’ pockets?” According to researchers at the investment firm Friedman, Billings and Ramsey, the average profit margin for converting a barrel of crude oil into gasoline in the first quarter of this year came to $15.75 — or about 37.5 cents per gallon. (In the oil patch, there are 42 gallons in a barrel.)
With gas prices at $3 a gallon, that's about 12.5 percent margin, or about $150 million a day — not a bad profit for a day's work. But how does that compare to what other companies make? Google and Bank of America recently reported net profit margins of 29 percent; handbag maker Coach Inc. had a net margin of 24 percent and Coca-Cola reported a net margin of 21 percent. Of the 200 largest companies in the S&P 500 index, 82 had profit margins higher than 12.5 percent, according to figures from MSN Money.