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Anatomy of a Gallon

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It’s a first-place finish Chicago might not be eager to repeat: as of last week, the city had the nation’s highest gas prices. That’s according to a survey of 7,000 gas stations.

But where does that 3-59 Chicagoans spend on the average gallon actually go? Chicago Public Radio’s Gabriel Spitzer went to find out.

When gas prices rise, finger-pointing usually follows. And it turns out there are plenty of scapegoats to choose from.

So if you’re wondering about who’s getting all that money you part with every time you fill up, we have prepared a handy breakdown.

First, a caveat: all these numbers are a little vague. They fluctuate day to day, and sometimes overlap.

With that in mind, here is a sort of radio pie chart. The whole pie -- the price of a gallon of gas – is 10 seconds of time. This list represents the relative portions of that 10 seconds that each cost factor accounts for:

PIE CHART 1: Crude oil … Refining and production ... infrastructure costs … taxes.

So to translate, about 50 percent of the price of a gallon is the cost of crude oil, 20 percent is refining and production, 10 percent is infrastructure and 20 percent is taxes.

Each of those chunks includes some profit for the sellers.

Except for the taxes. Those add up to about 77 cents a gallon in Chicago.

Now, here is another audio pie chart, this one dramatizing the relative share of that total tax that goes to the different entities. This one’s a little longer.

PIE CHART 2: Federal excise tax … state environmental tax … Chicago fuel tax … state sales tax … state excise tax … Cook county fuel tax … Chicago and RTA sales tax.

Those taxes are significantly higher than most comparable cities. For starters, most states don’t let the city and county pile on with their own taxes like they do here.

Dave Sykuta of the Illinois Petroleum Council says that’s the culprit, not big bad Big Oil.

SYKUTA: We don’t like that because our customers blame us for the price. And it’s something they don’t do elsewhere, it makes our prices stick out and it makes it sound like something fishy is going on in Illinois compared to Missouri or Indiana or some place.

IMUS: Our gas taxes aren’t too high. That’s really not the problem.

That’s Brian Imus of Illinois Public Interest Research Group. He says it’s really about the oil companies’ bottom line.

IMUS: The truth is when you just look at the numbers they are making record profits while we’re all paying record prices at the pump. And that’s ridiculous, it shouldn’t be that way.

The rise in gas prices does benefit oil companies – but it also helps government.

Of that 77 cents in taxes per gallon, more than a third is based on the price of gas. So the more expensive a gallon is, the more the state and others collect.

What’s more, at least 21 cents of the total taxes doesn’t go to building roads or transit or anything that has to do with driving. Instead it goes into the general funds of the state, county and city of Chicago.

I’m Gabriel Spitzer, Chicago Public Radio.

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