- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

Urban legend or not, thousands of consumers apparently plan to participate in todays national Gas Out to send a message to Big Oil about the cost of gasoline.

“Boycott, boycott, boycott; this country is due for a good one,” John B. Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said yesterday. “The question remains whether will work, but one things for certain: Consumers are mad at Big Oil companies.”

Gas prices reached new heights over the weekend an average of $3.07, according to AAA and $3.10 according to a federal survey nationwide, and $3.01 in the metro area. Mr. Townsend said, “People are desperate to send a message to the industry.”

As predictably as rising prices at the pump coincide with the summer driving season, electronic chain letters are urging people to refrain from buying gas for one day.

Today is the day, according to an anonymous circular making the Web rounds.

It says, “In April 1997, there was a ‘gas out’ conducted nationwide in protest of gas prices. Gasoline prices dropped 30 cents a gallon overnight. On May 15th 2007, all internet users are to not go to a gas station in protest of high gas prices. Gas is now over $3.00 a gallon in most places.”

That 1997 episode, however, constitutes the mythical mumbo-jumbo that fuels urban legends, said debunker Dave Emery of urbanlegends.about.com. “Wrong, wrong, wrong,” he writes. There was no boycott that year, and the first one in 1999 received scant attention.

The Web posting continues: “There are 73,000,000 plus American members currently on the internet network, and the average car takes about 30 to 50 dollars to fill up. If all users did not go to the pump on the 15th, it would take $2,292,000,000.00 (that’s almost 3 BILLION) out of the oil companies pockets for just one day, so please do not go to the gas station on May 15th and let’s try to put a dent in the Middle Eastern oil industry for at least one day.”

Once again, almost all the electronic analysts and pundits contend that the facts are misleading. There are more than 205 million Internet users in the U.S., and the average daily sales of gasoline across the entire country is less than $1 billion. Also, a one-day boycott “wont even put a dent” in the oil industrys record profits, said another. It doesnt matter if you buy gas on Tuesday or Wednesday; youre likely to pull up to the high-priced pump sometime before the week is out. Unless, of course, you plan to walk, bicycle or take public transit for the long haul.

The general consensus is that the only way to control prices is to control consumption. Suggestions include driving less, purchasing fuel-efficient cars, carpooling, consolidating errands and checking tire pressure regularly. And, simply, slow down.

Still, Mr. Townsend said while some push for “aggressive steps to combat consumption, we need aggressive steps to combat prices, too.”

Curiously, this year the Gas Out day coincides with a Senate hearing on the “short-term energy outlook for the summer of 2007” at which AAA officials will be testifying and presenting their most recent findings on gas prices that are rising with no end in sight.

Congress also is planning to schedule hearings soon to investigate suspected price gouging and violations of antitrust laws.

“People are fearful that the rumors of $4 a gallon gasoline may come true, and they have little confidence that there is much the political process can do about it,” Mr. Townsend said.

Since Jan. 29, gas prices have soared an average of 93 cents a gallon at 86,000 stations across the country, which is a 30 percent increase, based on AAA stats. Their charts indicate that during the same time period, the price of crude oil has remained stagnant or decreased.

Nineteen states and the District have hit a record high this week. According to AAA numbers, the average for a gallon of gas in the District is $3.11 (the exact same as last year at this time), $2.90 in Virginia (compared with $2.86 a year ago) and $3.06 in suburban Maryland (versus $3.06 last year).

Just think of all that money going into the tank, especially if your livelihood depends on driving as it does for cabdrivers and delivery personnel.

Mr. Townsend said fed-up consumers “anger is boiling over” as they blame oil companies and point out their record profits.

Two years ago, consumers understood the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Gulf Coast refineries. This year, he said, “consumers will have none of it. The excuses ring hollow.”

Although Mr. Townsend agrees that reducing gas prices requires more sacrifice than a one-day boycott, he said that if it makes consumers feel good to send a symbolic message or a “shout-out with a gas out,” then they should go ahead.

“Thats all anyone talks about when I go in the barber shop,” he said of high gas prices. “Thats why some are willing to turn to means like this .”

By the way, the majority of consumers in Mr. Emerys unscientific survey, 51 percent or 3,883 of 7,608 respondents said they will participate in today’s Gas Out urban legend or not and effective or not.

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