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Americans cut consumption in face of record gasoline prices

By Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — On Tuesday, the U.S. average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was 28.5 cents a gallon higher than it was a year ago, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. But if the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is any guide, the fuel bite Tuesday won’t be any worse on American wallets than it was last year.

What gives?

The reason is that U.S. drivers were set to burn about 36 million fewer gallons of gasoline Tuesday than they did last year, when they bought about 370 million gallons, according to the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey. The consumption mark is even further below the pre-recession threshold of 391 million gallons a day set in January of 2008.

The drop in consumption is canceling out the fact that gasoline prices now are well over the record levels, set in 2011, for this time of year. The average price of a gallon of gasoline Tuesday is $3.381, according to the AAA, up 15.3 cents since last month.

But the sharp drop in consumption meant that Americans spent about $1.15 billion on motor fuel on the King holiday, roughly the same amount they spent last year.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service, said U.S. gasoline consumption is on pace to drop to its “lowest levels since Elian Gonzalez was at the top of the news, Time Warner was heralding the synergies of its AOL purchase, and ‘American Beauty’ was the Golden Globe winner. The year was 2000.”

The shift is all the more remarkable, Kloza said, when one considers that the U.S. population has swelled by 31 million people during the past 12 years, with Americans adding about 31 million more cars and light trucks than they had in the year 2000.

High gasoline-price hangovers from 2011 may be one of the biggest reasons for Americans burning less gasoline by driving less, consolidating trips, moving closer to where they work, and buying higher mileage vehicles, according to the Energy Department.

Last year was the first year ever that national averages for a gallon of regular gasoline and a gallon of diesel never fell below $3, the Energy Department said.

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