Many economists and academics are split on whether prices matter when it comes to gasoline demand.
On the face of it, the answer seems obvious. The over 40 percent slide in nationwide gas prices last year to nearly $2 a gallon led to more frequent and longer drives, fueling a 5 percent jump in gas use in December and January, the fastest such growth in 11 years, according to U.S. government data.
Yet many energy economists have long argued that it is economic activity and employment, not prices, that hold the greatest sway over how much gas Americans burn each day.
"More jobs means more commuters," says Phillip Verleger, president of consultancy PKVerleger and energy economist.
However, some academics are now challenging that notion with more than just anecdotal evidence. A soon-to-be released study that relies on data culled from credit card purchases at the pump suggests consumers are significantly more responsive to prices than previously believed.
In academic parlance, the "demand elasticity" of gasoline is generally estimated at around -0.02 to -0.04 in the short term, meaning it takes up to a 50 percent swing in the price of gasoline to raise or lower demand by 1 percent. In its forecasts, the U.S. Energy Information Administration uses an elasticity figure of -0.02.
But a new preliminary study by Matthew Lewis, a professor of Economics at Clemson University, and three other researchers suggests a 12 percent swing in pump prices would raise or lower gasoline demand by 1 percent, roughly five times higher than the EIA formula.
They argue that previous research relied too heavily on flawed monthly federal figures of gasoline demand that do not accurately reflect daily or weekly changes in consumer behavior.