Gauging the value of a gallon of gas

Image: RV on the road
The pain we’ve been feeling at the pump is a bargain when you consider what people in other countries are paying. Grant Faint / Getty Images stock

Those Canadians — they’re a sneaky bunch.

Consider: They’ll sell you a pint of beer and a 12-ounce steak, but when you go to fill your gas tank, they’ll charge you, not by the gallon, but by some arcane calculation called “cents per liter.” They say it’s based on the metric system, but I’m beginning to think it’s actually part of a nefarious plot to get unwitting Americans to fork over more money without realizing it.

I fell for it just last week. I was on the outskirts of Calgary when I saw the Petro-Canada sign touting regular for $1.26, which, at first glance, sounded like a steal compared to the $3.85 or so I’d been paying back home. I knew it wasn’t, but it wasn’t until I actually did the math — 1 U.S. gallon = 3.785 liters, $1.26 x 3.785 — that I realized, whoa, I’m paying $4.77 a gallon, almost a dollar more than usual. Like I said, pretty sneaky, eh?

I’m kidding, of course, and there’s no reason to blame Canada for my lagging math skills. Better instead to consider the incident a learning experience about how much we really pay for our precious petroleum distillates.

Taxes take their toll
Flying into Calgary, there’s no escaping the fact that the city is command central for Alberta’s oil industry. The 53-story Petro-Canada Centre, the twin Husky Oil buildings, the gaping hole in the ground that will house the 58-story headquarters of EnCana — these and other skyscrapers stand as testament to the gusher of money being produced during the province’s ongoing oil boom.

But on the road to Banff a few days before the Labor Day weekend, that bonanza doesn’t translate into any bargains at the gas station. The reasons are many and complex, but chief among them is the role of taxes. In Canada, taxes currently add an average of 34 cents per liter ($1.30 per gallon!) to the cost of regular gas (25 cents or $.95 per gallon in Alberta), compared to an average of 50 cents per gallon across the U.S. Over the course of a year, the difference can amount to several hundred dollars in added expense.

Fortunately for us, we were only traveling for a week and we were driving a gas-sipper of a rental car, a Toyota Yaris that got 37 miles per gallon. If we’d filled the 11.1-gallon tank, it would’ve cost us $52.95 — unpleasant, to be sure, but only a ten-spot more than we’d have paid back home. Putting my meager math skills to the test again, I figured we could go 400 miles or so before another fill-up — not a bad deal for the money.

Count your pennies or count your blessings
All of which, I suppose, is a roundabout way of saying that the pain we’ve been feeling at the pump recently is relative. And even $4.77 per gallon is a bargain when you consider what people in other countries are paying. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a gallon of gas will currently run you $7.64 in the UK, $8.12 in Germany and $9.01 in the Netherlands. Ironically, those prices are relative bargains themselves when compared with summertime highs that were 10 to 15 percent higher.

Then there are the countries where gas prices are kept enticingly low thanks to ample supplies, price controls and/or government subsidies. According to, gasoline is a bargain in Iran ($.41 per gallon) and Libya ($.50 per gallon) and a bona fide steal in Venezuela ($.12 per gallon).

Twelve cents! At that rate, we could fill the Yaris’ tank to the brim for $1.33, just a few cents more than the price of a single liter in Alberta. Of course, that would entail driving in Venezuela, a country where, says the U.S. State Department, seatbelts are rarely available, speed limits are routinely ignored and urban traffic jams are often exploited by petty crooks. I don’t know, maybe I need to be more adventurous, but I’ll take $53 in Calgary over $1.33 in Caracas any day.

Actually, make that $55, thanks to a surprise six-cents-per-liter price jump — about 23 cents per gallon — during our trip. Needless to say, another $2.50 a tank wasn’t going to break the bank, but the increase seemed odd given that gas prices had been trending down for several weeks. Theories abounded — fears of Gustav-inspired shortages, after-effects of an earlier refinery shutdown in Edmonton, price gouging to take advantage of holiday travelers — but definitive answers weren’t forthcoming.

Instead, I was left with the impression that gas pains are relative and that, as travelers, we adjust to the intensity of the pain. Some rent smaller cars, some take shorter trips and some starting minding the speed limit. It’s small consolation, I know, but whatever you do, the bottom line is the same whatever the price at the pump: the less gas you buy, the less pain you’ll feel.