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Will the "Great American Gas Out" put the burn on gas prices? 

A Gas Boycott? They're not Fueling

An anonymous e-mail chain letter is urging Americans to boycott their local gas stations this week.

The call for a "Great American Gas Out" began circulating via cyberspace sometime in late March, when oil prices jumped after a period of historic lows. The message cites "the so-called oil cartels" as the culprits, having slowed production to drive up prices. (OPEC nations did agree on March 23 to reduce daily production by 2.1 million barrels.) Claiming that one day without gasoline sales would send prices plummeting, the message calls for radical action: "Let's have a GAS OUT! Do not buy any gasoline on APRIL 30, 1999!!!!! Buy on Thursday before, or Saturday after.

Then, like any other chain letter, it asks well-meaning recipients to pass the word to everyone they know, concluding triumphantly "We CAN make a difference."

Wrapped in populist outrage and optimism, the "Great American Gas Out" (which has spawned a number of Web sites and also spread to Canada) seems to have a lot of appeal while making very little sense. How does buying gas on the days before or after make any difference? Wouldn't using less gas on one day make more sense?

Gasoline prices have indeed been on the rise, jumping some 25 percent in the last two months. The Department of Energy predicts the average gallon of gas will be $1.13 this summer, up nine cents from the summer of 1998, when the oil glut had Americans laughing all the way to the pumps.

Here in Richmond, where a gallon of unleaded remains under $1.10, the prospect of a "Gas Out" seems dim. Graham Bryant owns Carroll's Auto Service, a Texaco station on Patterson Avenue. Some customers have mentioned the boycott, but he doesn't believe it will change prices.

"You're going to buy the gas sometime. I don't see how it's going to get at the folks making the decisions," he says. "When all those folks in Saudi Arabia get together to set prices, they never seem to call and get my opinion. If (the "Gas Out") is going to hurt anyone, it's only going to be the small businessman, since he still has to meet his overhead."

His customers are more ambivalent. When asked if she would abstain from gas April 30, one customer just shrugged, "I guess I'll try anything." Before she drove off, she raised a more pressing concern. "Can you do anything about the price of
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