Trilby Lundberg, the nation’s guru of gasoline prices, has no idea how many miles her new Mercedes-Benz gets per gallon. When she has to fill the tank, she is more concerned with convenience than price.
Yet for decades, the nation has turned to the assertive, 57-year-old cat lover and her twice monthly Lundberg Survey of gas stations to keep track of the fluctuating price of gasoline.
Lately, the news hasn’t been good.
On Aug. 13, Lundberg reported the nationwide price for self-serve regular hit another record, jumping to nearly $3.03 a gallon.
Lundberg said the cost of crude oil isn’t the only reason for the skyrocketing prices. Demand, taxes, weather and government regulations all figure into the complex equation, she said.
Are there five oil industry executives someplace deciding the price of gas?
“That would be tragic because that would wreck the market,” she said. “And it would be a comedy because it is impossible.”
Oil companies 'have no mercy'
Lundberg said oil companies have no interest in helping each other and instead want to increase their sales at the expense of the competition.
“They all have no mercy,” she said.
Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, called the Lundberg Survey a bellwether for the oil industry.
“Anybody who can explain gas prices to the general public, well, we’re a lot better for it,” he said. The nation’s 112,000 convenience stores account for 80 percent of all U.S. gasoline sales.
The survey is based on a biweekly price sampling of 7,000 of the nation’s 133,000 gasoline stations.
The Lundberg Survey Inc. does a lot more than sample prices from gas stations. Researchers also collect sales volume and market share for each brand and sell information to petroleum companies, wholesalers, distributors, vehicle fleet managers and others.
“We make our living looking at the detail. We are going to be looking at what kinds of stations, what they offer, what kind of volume they do, what kind of market share a brand has,” Lundberg said.
Interest in the price data could increase after this month’s shutdown of a crucial Alaskan pipeline by oil giant BP.
Lundberg, however, doesn’t expect much impact at the pump, even though the shutdown means a temporary loss of as much as 8 percent of domestic production.
'There's still no shortage'
“Unlike many of the jumps in oil prices from world headlines, especially from unstable areas of the world, this is a production loss,” she said. “But there’s still no shortage.”
Lundberg took over the Camarillo-based market research firm in 1986 after the death of her father, Dan Lundberg. The reporter and television talk show host began the report in the 1950s when self-service islands at gas stations were being invented.
It was mostly an information service for companies. But the figures attracted broad public attention during the oil crisis in the 1970s, when short supply had motorists lining up at the pumps.
The fiery Dan Lundberg became the radio sound-bite of the crisis that he dubbed “the days of lines and hoses.”
Trilby Lundberg now oversees about 30 employees that compile the data. She wasn’t raised to be an oil industry analyst but worked closely with her father before his death.
She was brought up to play classical piano and has no formal business education.
'I'm self-made or lucky'
“I’m without a mortarboard on my head,” she said. “I’m self-made or lucky.”
The nation’s Prophet of the Pumps gave an impromptu piano recital during a recent interview at her 1929 Spanish-style home in Ventura County, about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
She also speaks Italian, Greek and some Spanish, smokes Dunhill cigarettes and considers herself a homebody.
One of five siblings, she attended Hollywood High School before her eccentric father took the family on a 52-foot ketch for a five-year sail around the world. He made sure there was a piano on board.
Watching the oil industry has led Lundberg to some interesting conclusions.
She condemns the “overzealous meddling” of the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies, and said government-mandated reformulation of unleaded gas and engine modifications aimed at curtailing emissions are more to blame for gas price increases than the worldwide Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Media 'woefully ignorant,' she says
She also criticized the “woefully ignorant” media and public perception about gas prices.
“It is wild-headed and often destructive,” she said of the reporting. “The explanation can be boring, it can be a little bit dry, it takes a long time, and the majority of folks simply do not have that time and do not have the interest.”
Lundberg has strong opinions on other issues. For instance, she calls global warming a “boogeyman for political opportunism.” Those who promote the theory are trying to create a power base and “believe global warming is a reason to hike taxes and hike prices,” she said.
Lundberg balks at suggestions that she is a tool of the oil industry.
“What hurts me is those who call me an oil apologist or self-styled consumer advocate. I’m not,” she said. “I do have passionate feelings about that.”
Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical & Refining Association, said Lundberg is highly respected in the industry.
“She’s a character,” he said. “She’s first there with a national gasoline price and I think everybody from the media to (Wall) Street to the oil industry looks forward to hearing from her.”