Washington — This story about gasoline and Americans begins in the green Taunus hills of West Germany, where I tooled my rented four-cylinder car into a service station for a refill.
The tab, when the gas tank registered full, was 60 deutsche marks, or $35, for 12.5 gallons.
A sticker on each pump at that station reminded motorists that "more than 52 pfennigs per liter is tax."
That translates roughly to a tax of $1.22 a gallon, boosting the total cost of a gallon of gasoline in West Germany close to $3.
An American, by contrast, pays an average tax of 14 cents (federal and state combined), for a total per-gallon price of about $1.25.
Which people saves more gasoline?
Wrong, if you guessed the Germans. They continue to boil along their beautiful Autobahnen, or throughways, at 70, 80, 90, or more m.p.h.
At intervals along the highways a huge sign looms: "Not more than 130 kilometers [75 miles] per hour."
"That's a recommendation," one German hastened to tell me, "not an order." There is no speed limit on the Autobahnen.
West Germans last year consumed more oil, not less, than the year before, despite the fact that the entire replacement cost of petroleum -- what their country must pay for imported oil -- is pushed directly on to the consumer.
Americans, by contrast, are burning less oil than before, although they are still somewhat shielded by price controls from the full $31.56 a barrel world price of crude.
US imports of crude oil, says federal Energy Secretary Charles W. Duncan Jr., dropped 25 percent in the four weeks ending June 30, amounting to "very substantial progress" in conserving energy.
So far this year, Mr. Duncan told reporters recently at the Venice economic summit, oil imports are down by about a million barrels daily, amounting to a savings of more than $30 million per day.
He hopes for a 1980 average import figure of 7 million barrels daily, down from the record high of 8.5 million barrels a day chalked up in 1977.
Americans, says Mr. Duncan, burned 8.1 percent less gasoline during the first five months of 1980 than during the same period of last year.
Also substantially down, according to the latest Department of Energy figures , are consumption of distillate fuel oil (primarily home heating oil) and of residual fuel oil, used in utility and factory boilers.
"Price elasticity," said a senior US official, "is much higher than anyone had suspected."
He meant Americans are showing their sensitivity to higher gasoline and other energy prices by burning markedly less fuel.
Other factors include a switch by many Americans to more fuel-efficient cars, improved insulation of homes, and the effects of recession. Businesses, in other words, burn less fuel when running at less than full capacity.
Price, however, is the major factor, which raises the question: Why do West Germans, who pay so much more for fuel, fail to conserve?
The same query might be addressed to Swedes, Belgians, Japanese, and peoples of other major industrial democracies, who also pay more than Americans but fail to achieve comparable energy conservation.
Part of the answer lies in the brisker rate of growth of several of these lands, including West Germany and Japan. They still grow, while the US economy loses ground.
More importantly, Americans -- despite their energy savings -- still consume a lot more oil per person, including gasoline, than is the case in any other industrial country except Canada.
Americans can cut back more sharply, without basically distorting their lifestyles, than can Europeans and Japanese.
Whatever the reasons, imports of foreign oil -- which once totaled nearly 50 percent of all US consumption -- now hover in the 37 percent range, a stride toward energy independence.