Gas Inflation Poses a Heavy Burden for Rural America

Expensive gas has become typical dinner table conversation. But in America’s most sparsely populated areas, where long commutes are the norm, rising prices hit even harder. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

The national gas price average hit a record high in June, exceeding $5 a gallon for the first time in American history. Of course, this comes as no surprise to anyone with a fuel-reliant vehicle — costs at the pump have been scrolling to $100 a tank for most consumers. 

But for rural America, high gas prices present an entirely different burden. These low-populated communities rely heavily on gasoline for long commutes, often with fuel-inefficient vehicles. In the Midwest, South Dakota has the highest energy burden of any state, followed closely by North Dakota, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI). North Dakota also has the highest vehicle miles traveled, at an average of 23,300 per year. 

But is gas more expensive in rural areas? Well, sometimes.

“The problem is rural stations have to charge more, because they have the same costs for labor and electricity and some other things that have been inflated,” said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis for OPIS, an energy data and analytics provider.

For the most part, however, pricing stays within a similar range to urban parts of the country. Rural affordability issues are mainly rooted in a combination of low incomes and heavy dependence on outdated vehicles — alongside the absence of public transportation. 

A recent report from Iowa State University found that rural households spend $2,470 more per year on gasoline and diesel fuels than just two years ago. 

“Commuting is a big part of what we do. In a town of 850 people, you’re gonna have to travel somewhere else for some things,” Johnathan Hladick, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs, said. “Whether it’s the most basic items you could think of, or whether it’s your livelihood, [that being the job and] I think that that reality makes higher gas prices feel almost like an additional tax on rural living.” 

According to data from the national household travel survey (NHTS), rural communities in the Midwest drive close to 25,000 miles each year, compared to about 15,000 in urban areas. 

Rising gas costs create repercussions for local businesses, too, Hladick said. 

“While it definitely hits those individuals that are commuting, the fact that they can’t spend their income here as much as they might otherwise ends up being the bigger challenge for the rest of the businesses in my community,” he said. 

The pandemic created a unique opportunity to attract people to rural areas, Hladick added. The rapid spread of disease in cities and the flexibility of remote work allowed for a migration of former urbanites. But Hladick worries that recent inflation-related struggles present new hardships with rural living — and could dissuade those on the cusp of moving. 

Although gas prices have recently dropped, Russian conflict and weather extremities mean that gas prices could still fluctuate, according to Kloza. One solution to these affordability issues may lie in vehicle efficiency. 

According to a 2020 OSTI report, “The adoption of more fuel-efficient vehicles, especially among low-income households, could have the biggest impact on reducing household transportation energy burden.” Their analysis showed that a 3% increase in stock-weighted MPG between 2016 and 2018 saved households $8.2 billion in transportation energy costs. 

Hladick also noted the national increase in use of electric vehicles. 

“I wonder if we’re going to be left out of that here,” he said. “That’s something for our lawmakers, public officials and certainly our utility companies to look at, is making sure that option is available to us too. So we have yet another tool to address the high gas prices in the future.”


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