Hawaii’s gasoline usage more predictable than U.S. mainland

Published  9:14 PM HST May 13, 2013
Driver Filling Up
HONOLULU -

For all that's been said about how the economy impacts gasoline use, it appears Hawaii drivers get in their cars because they have to.  

According to statistics from the Department of Businesses Economic Development and Tourism, gas usage has averaged 37 million to 39 million gallons per month going back to January 2006.  

"It's like 40 something miles from one end of the city of Honolulu to the other end. I mean how much more can you drive," said Lowell Kalapa, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii. "There's not a lot of discretionary driving, so therefore, we don't see the kind of consumption swings that you see on the mainland."

However, island motorists do react to higher fuel prices or a change in the economy. According to Carl Bonham, director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO), gas use took a dip during the 2008 Great Recession, and has yet to fully recover.

"Even in 2012, when you take out the movements in gas prices, we're still consuming (33 percent) less gasoline than we did in 2006," said Bonham. "There's not a lot of discretionary driving here, we think going from here to Haleiwa is a long trip, but people do have the ability to cut back."

Still, Bonham doesn't expect to see a drastic increase in the use of gas as Hawaii's economy continues to improve. He predicts stable, relatively flat gasoline consumption, which could have an impact on the possible purchase of the Tesoro refinery at Campbell Industrial Park, which stopped producing gas at the end of last month.

"There's not a lot of potential there for it to grow," Bonham said of Hawaii's gasoline usage. "Our population is not going to grow rapidly over time, fuel economy standards are going to improve (and) we're going to be driving more hybrid vehicles."

Hawaii's stable fuel consumption stands in contrast to the U.S. mainland, where gasoline use has plummeted. According to the latest statistics from the Energy Information Administration, Americans used 28 million gallons of gas per day in February of this year. That compares with 57 million gallons per day in the same month in 1993, a whopping 54 percent drop.

"On the mainland, it's not unusual for people to take a 500-mile summer vacation, or 1,000-mile summer vacation, and so that's the kind of discretionary driving that may disappear should the price of gasoline go up," explains Kalapa. "I think all of our driving (in Hawaii) is basically necessity driven, rather than discretionary driven."   

The steady, almost predictable use of gas in Hawaii may also explain the backlash faced by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell when he proposed increasing the city's fuel tax by a nickel to pay for road repairs. The proposal was quickly killed by the City Council, which defeated the measure before it could pass first reading. So it appears while Oahu residents may be willing to change their driving habits because of the economy, or a sharp increase in prices, asking them to pay more at the pump because of a new tax is a hard sell.

"I think that's why reaction was, 'It's dead on arrival,' when it hit the council because the constituency is not going to stand for another nickel on top of the $4.38 or whatever they're paying this week," said Kalapa.

"People seem to be more sensitive to fluctuations in gasoline prices, even if we're not large consumers of gasoline," adds Bonham. "It hits people differently, if you live on the Big Island and you're commuting long distances, or you're coming in from the west side of Oahu, that's a lot different than if you live in town." 

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