Rome BURNS: Fuel booty on the Autostrada

Gas strike 1Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Two years ago, not long after my family moved to Rome, I purchased a new car at a local dealership. It’s an Asian import – a nice little vehicle that gets pretty good gas mileage and fits into small parking spaces.

But the battery has always been a bit off, so  I recently brought the car to the dealership for a check up.

I hadn’t seen Giovanni, the dealership owner, for many months.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Well, we are still in business,” he said. “Asian imports are popular. But many car dealers have had to close their doors.”

Thousands, in fact. The number of Italian car dealerships has fallen 31 percent since 2007, from 2,950 to 2,011, including a 7 percent drop last year. Car sales are at their lowest level since 1966.

The global recession is to blame, which has deprived people of jobs and disposable income. Also at fault is Italy’s chronically tempestuous political system, which undermines already shaky consumer confidence.

But if you ask Italian drivers what’s wrong with the automobile industry, you’re likely to hear them talk about the price of gasoline. It averages $8.92 a gallon, making Italy the most expensive European Union country  in which to purchase gasoline at the pump.

Fuel prices rose rapidly two years ago, after former Prime Minister Mario Monti took office and made pain at the pump public policy. He imposed a draconian 25 percent tax increase on gasoline in an effort to reduce Italy’s public debt. By the middle of last year, Bloomberg news reported that “Italians were spending more each week to fill their tanks than they do to feed their families.”

High gasoline prices and the concurrent fall off in car sales are two elements of a broader phenomenon: a deep drop in overall energy consumption in Italy. Guido Bortoni, chairman of Italy’s energy authority, reported last month that the global recession has caused energy demand here to drop to 1998 levels, “and shows no sign of recovery.”

In an effort to force down the price of gas, Italy’s service station industry – which has suffered a loss of business because of the high fuel costs – has announced that freeway gas stations will seal their pumps for three days this month, July 16 – 19.  In a statement, the industry said service station “managers are being fired and consumers are paying for the most expensive gasoline in Europe.” The pump lock down aims to draw public attention to what the industry calls Il “Bottino” del carburanti in autostrada – “Fuel booty on the motorway.”





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The Global Energy Mix and Policies

 On this page, you can find energy information about the world’s most populated countries: China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Russia, and Japan. For fossil fuel information about any country, see online tables here.

A nation’s sources of energy hinge on so many factors, from what’s naturally available to geography, political history, and relative wealth.

Even though energy demand is increasing rapidly across the globe, the International Energy Agency estimates a fifth of the world population lacks access to electricity, and a whopping 40 percent of people still use traditional biomass – like wood chips – for cooking. People who live without the energy infrastructure of electricity depend on portable petroleum fuels, manure and methane gas produced from manure, wood, grass, and agricultural wastes. Because these sources of energy are informal, it’s difficult to track and include them in statistics.

World electricity and energy demands are escalating. Countries are expanding energy investment to non-fossil sources like biofuels, wind, solar, and geothermal. At the same time, they are competing to secure access to coal, natural gas, and petroleum both at home and abroad.


Nowhere has rapid energy growth been more conspicuous than in the world’s most populated country, China. While most countries saw moderate energy growth in the same period, this Asian nation doubled energy use in less than a decade – see graph – and surpassed the United States in total energy use in 2009, according to International Energy Agency estimates. Until 2009, the United States lead the world in total energy consumption, though not per person consumption, for decades. For a list of the top 30 countries by total energy consumption see here.

Meanwhile, less than 42 percent of people in Africa had electricity at home in 2009. South Asians seemed better off than Africans that year, at 62 percent, but the real story is much more diverse. Nearly 100 percent of Chinese had access to electricity, while in Burma, only 13 percent had access. Worldwide almost 78 percent of people had access to electricity in 2009, according to the International Energy Agency.




CHINA (Pop. 1.3 billion)

Between 2008 and 2035, China may triple its electricity demand, adding power plant capacity equal to the current U.S. total, the International Energy Agency projects in one scenario of the 2010 World Energy Outlook.

China is the world’s most populated country and also the world’s largest energy consumer. China gets most of its energy from coal, 71 percent in 2008. China is also the world’s biggest coal producer but only third, behind the United States and Russia, in coal reserves.

In 2008, China generated another 19 percent of its energy from oil, which it imported from all over the world, more than half came collectively from Saudi Arabia, Angola, Iran, Oman, Russia, and Sudan. China used to export its oil, but by 2009 automobile investment was expanded by so much, the country became the second largest oil importer (United States is first).

China is in hot pursuit of securing as much oil as possible, as the nation’s reliance on imported oil is growing far more rapidly than its oil production. Several powerful, national oil companies provide the domestic oil, both from on and off-shore sources. Furthermore, China has purchased oil assets in the Middle East, Canada, and Latin America, and it also conducts oil-for-loan exchanges with other countries, $90 billion worth since 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Only a small proportion of China’s energy comes natural gas, produced domestically and imported in liquified form, but that may change as prices lower and liquified natural gas terminals are constructed.

China is the world’s biggest user of hydroelectric power, which made up 6 percent of energy and 16 percent of electricity in 2009. The country’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, is expected to begin operating in 2012. Nuclear power accounts for only 1 percent of total consumption. However, China’s government predicts it will have seven times its current nuclear capacity by 2020.

A homemade oven. West Bengal, India, 2009.

Detailed data on energy in China can be found here.







INDIA (1.2 billion)

India is the world’s largest democracy. Though India’s population is close to that of China’s, it is only the world’s fifth largest energy user, behind the United States, China, Russia, and Japan.

Like China, India’s electricity comes mostly from coal. However, India doesn’t have enough electricity for everyone, and only 65 percent of the population has access to electricity.

Instead, many Indian use fuels at home for lighting and cooking. A 2004-2005 survey by the government found more than 40 percent of rural Indians used kerosene instead of electricity for home lighting. The same survey showed that for cooking, 74 percent of Indians used firewood and wood chips, 8.6 percent used liquified petroleum gas, 9 percent used dung cakes, and 1.3 percent used kerosene.

India produces oil domestically, but like China, the rate of India’s increasing oil consumption far outstrips its production. India therefore has to import oil; in 2009 its most significant sources were Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Angola, and Venezuela, in descending order.

India doesn’t have the electricity capacity to serve its population but aims to add many thousands of megawatts in the near future.

Like China, India has nuclear power, with 14 nuclear plants in operation and another 10 in planning, the reactors purchased from France and Russia.


UNITED STATES (300 million)

Until China recently outpaced it, the United States was the biggest energy consumer in the world, though per capita use isn’t the highest but in the same range as several developed countries worldwide and less than the per capita use in Canada. The United States relies on petroleum, coal, and natural gas, as well as a small part nuclear, hydroelectric, and various non-fossil sources. The Unites States has significant oil, coal, and natural gas reserves, as well as the potential for significant investment in solar, off and on-shore wind, and biofuels.

The mix of fuels that provide electricity varies widely from region to region. Find a map of fuel mix by U.S. region from the Edison Electric Insitute here.

For more U.S. information:

-Fossil fuel use in the United States, go here.
-U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and energy here.
-U.S. sources of energy, see here.


INDONESIA (250 million)

Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands — 6,000 are inhabited — and it is home to 76 active volcanoes and a significant undeveloped geothermal capacity, estimated at 28 gigawatts, about as much total electricity capacity as Indonesia had in 2008.

Indonesia’s energy demand is growing rapidly, split between coal, natural gas, and petroleum sources. Traditional sources of energy like wood and agricultural waste continue to be used, particularly in rural areas and remote islands, and the International Energy Administration estimates these fuels provide about a quarter of the country’s energy.

Indonesia exports coal and natural gas. In the past, the country also exported more oil than it used, but as of 2004 that balance changed. By 2009, the country suspended its membership in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) because it was using so much of its own oil.


BRAZIL (200 million)

Tropical Brazil is the largest country in South America both in area and population, and it is the third largest user of energy in the Americas, after the United States and Canada.

Made from sugar cane, Brazil’s ethanol production is the world’s second largest, after the United States, which makes ethanol from corn.

Brazil produces almost as much petroleum as Venezuela and produces slightly more fuel than it consumes.

While Brazil depends on oil for other energy applications like transportation, the country gets an astounding 84 percent of electricity from hydroelectric dams. Brazil also has two nuclear power plants.

PAKISTAN (190 million)

Pakistan has limited access to electricity and energy sources, and its rural population still relies on gathered fuels like wood for heating and cooking.

In 2009 around 60 percent of the population had access to electricity, far better than its neighbor Afghanistan, at just 15 percent. Nonetheless, even with access, most of the population can’t rely on electricity unless they are wealthy enough to own generators. Pakistan suffers from lengthy blackouts, even in its cities, in part because of poor transmission infrastructure and widespread electricity theft. The situation is also aggravated by lack of capacity planning, insufficient fuel, and irregularities in water supply for hydroelectric.

In 2010, angry citizens protested violently after lengthy blackouts — as long as 18 hours according to Reuters — plagued the country. That summer, Pakistan has nowhere near enough electricity for its peak needs, which were roughly 25 percent more than its total production capacity. The widespread blackouts crippled the country’s textile industry, its biggest source of exports, and some reports suggest that hundreds of factories were shuttered as a result of sporadic power.

Meanwhile, several proposals for gas pipelines through Pakistan have yet to get solidified, including one from Iran to Afghanistan (which is opposed by the United States).


BANGLADESH (160 million)

Like nearby Pakistan and India, with which it shares cultural and political histories, Bangladesh also suffers from electricity shortages. Only 41 percent of Bangladeshis had access to electricity in 2009, according to the International Energy Administration.

Most of the electricity in this delta nation is generated from natural gas, with smaller amounts each from oil, coal, and hydroelectric sources. More than 30 percent of the country’s energy comes from biomass, agricultural wastes, and other combustible, renewable materials.

In 2011, Bangladesh signed a contract with oil company ConocoPhillips, allowing off-shore drilling for natural gas, despite internal protests that insisted Bangladesh should keep more of the gas for its own. The agreement gives 20 percent to Bangladesh.


NIGERIA (160 million)

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and it is world famous for its oil, most of which is exported for sale by huge foreign oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Petrobras, and Statoil. Roughly 65 percent of government revenue comes from the oil sector, and around 40 percent its oil exports are sent to the United States. Nigeria also holds the largest natural gas reserves in Africa.

Extensive oil development has wreaked havoc on Nigeria’s ecology. Oil spills have polluted Nigeria’s water, affecting both fishing and agriculture. Much of Nigeria’s natural gas is flared rather than being collected and sold for fuel. Flaring involves burning off naturally-occurring gases during petroleum drilling and refining, resulting in  environmental degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and loss of revenue.

Even though Nigeria is fossil fuel-rich, only 47 percent of the population have access to electricity, and less than a fifth of energy in that country came from petroleum and natural gas in 2007, reflecting the widespread use of more traditional fuels like wood. Nigeria only used 13 percent of petroleum it produced in 2009.


RUSSIA (140 million)

Russia has significant wealth in fossil fuels, including the largest natural gas reserves and the second largest coal reserves, after the United States. In 2009, Russia produced more oil even than Saudi Arabia, mostly from Western Siberia. In 2009, Russia exported far more oil than it used, and 81 percent of its exports went to Europe, notably the Netherlands and Germany.

Russia is also the third largest consumer of energy in the world.

The country has a well-developed pipeline system to transport oil from remote regions, a system which is almost entirely controlled by a single state-run company, Transneft.

Like Nigeria, Russia flares gas in the process of drilling and refining oil, and in 2008 Russia flared more gas than any other country in the world, 1,432 Bcf of natural gas, more than double Nigeria’s output and equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions for 1.4 million passenger cars, according the calculator on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website and data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Russia operates 31 nuclear reactors, half of which employ a similar design to the ill-fated Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine.


JAPAN (130 million)

Japan doesn’t have significant fossil fuel resources, one reason that much of its electricity industry relies on nuclear power. It is the world’s third largest user of nuclear power.

Japan is the world’s third larger oil consumer, and it does produce some oil domestically. However, it also imports a lot of oil and natural gas, the later in the form of liquified natural gas, or LNG. Almost half of its energy came from imported oil in 2009, and just 16 percent of Japanese energy came from a domestic source.

Japan also invests heavily in foreign oil, including in the United Arab Emirates, the Congo, Algeria, Russia, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, and Indonesia, to name a few.

As of June 2011, Japan is still recovering from a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated its northeast coast on March 11, 2011, forcing the shutdown of several nuclear reactors as well as damaging refineries, oil and gas generators, and electricity transmission infrastructure.

Japan imports most of its oil from the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar together supplied 77 percent of imports in 2009.

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The Price of Gasoline: How it Rises and Falls

Menlo Park, CA, April 2011


The price of gasoline fluctuates with several markets, not only the retail market of service stations. In fact, when looking at the national average gasoline at the pump, the international crude oil market is the single biggest factor determining the price.





International crude oil prices can change according to what OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, decides to do, because they own most of the world’s proven oil reserves and produced about 40 percent of the world’s oil supply in 2010. OPEC is the largest entity involved in crude oil production, and it holds prices at a particular level by slowing production and withholding supply.

In general, when economic growth slows globally, demand for crude slows and the price of oil drops, which is reflected back at the pump.

Oil prices can also fluctuate because of oil traders, those who buy and sell crude oil before it’s refined into fuels and other products. Traders are very sensitive to  political instabilities – well before there are actual restrictions on oil supply – such as occurred during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, when oil prices increased as oil traders worried about crude traveling through the Suez Canal, even though only 2 percent of the world supply ships through that waterway, which is controlled by Egypt.

The events and conditions that convince oil traders to buy and sell are sophisticated and carefully tracked by authorities here and internationally because oil is so critical to the global economy. However, even though many monitor oil prices carefully, the market can be manipulated.  For example, in May 2011, the United States government alleged that Australian and American oil traders fraudulently restricted supply  to hike up crude prices. U.S. Suit Sees Manipulation of Oil Trades.



Note: the Transportation and Marketing costs in the above chart were calculated by the Energy Information Administration as the remaining difference between the average retail cost and the other three components.



Regionally, the price of gasoline can change because of local competition, rents, local laws, and temporary shortages, particularly if there’s a limited amount of refined oil. Some states are just plain closer to the refineries, and some states have emissions-related requirements for gas that limit the source of gas to certain refineries.

Californians pay some of the highest gas prices, not because their state tax rates, but because of stringent requirements on the blend of gasoline allowed to be sold. That means there are few refineries outside of California that can supply gas to the state. The elevated price is both due to limited supply from refineries and a higher refining cost.

In other states, the distance to refineries can add cost too. Hawaii is far away from almost everywhere, and it probably comes as no surprise that gasoline prices in that island state are high. Average prices by state are compiled here.

Geography and laws about what can go in the gas sold in a state contribute a lot to the price of a gallon of gasoline, perhaps significantly more than the factor that’s often blamed for wide-ranging prices, taxes.



Compared to Europe, Americans pay far lower taxes on gasoline, in the range of 15 percent (see chart above) as compared to more than 50 percent for some countries. For a chart of how much tax various countries pay, go here.

The federal government applies a per gallon tax on gasoline and diesel in every state.Then, individual states and even counties add their own taxes, which can be both sales and fuel taxes. For historical and current gasoline taxes by state, you can visit the Federal Highway Administration website here. Fuel taxes are applied by the gallon. Sales tax is applied to the overall cost of the gas, by percent.

The most expensive states to buy regular gasoline in 2009 were, on average, Alaska, Hawaii, and California. The cheapest states were Kansas, Arkansas, and Tennessee, even though Arkansas, Kansas, and Tennessee all charge higher per gallon fuel taxes than California.

Californians also paid the same rate of sales tax, 6 percent, as many other states in 2010, like Michigan, Maine, Tennessee, and Minnesota. However, since their base price of gas is higher, the percent sales tax was higher too.

For recent gas prices by region, go here.

Other costs that affect the price of gas include distribution (shipping and trucking crude oil to refineries and then to consumers) and refining (turning crude oil into gasoline, a mixture of carbon-based liquids). For more information about our dependence on crude oil, see here.


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Petroleum, Natural Gas, and Coal

The world depends on fossil fuels for its energy, and the United States is no exception. The vast majority of U.S. energy — more than 80 percent in 2009 — comes from burning fossil fuels. (more…)

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Electric Vehicles 19th Century to Today


New York City in 1913.

Early 1800s Steam train travel becomes popular.

1850s Americans begin installing streetcar tracks. Street cars are steam-powered.

1859 Gaston Plante invents the lead-acid battery, though not specifically for transportation applications.

1880 Camille Faure improves Plante’s battery by developing the grid-plate battery in 1880, leading to use with motor power.

1880 Several inventors and companies begin to produce basic automobiles powered by steam, gasoline, electricity, compressed air, hydraulics, levers, and anything else on hand both in the United States and Europe, though Europe is more advanced initially.

1881 First experiments using grid-plate batteries to power a “converted horse streetcar,” conducted by Nicole-Jules Raffard.

1881 Charles Jeantaud begins working with Camille Faure to build an electric propulsion system, which they test with several motors over the next decade.

1885 First practical automobile, a gasoline-powered machine, is in production in Europe: the one-cylinder, three-wheeler Benz.

1890 There are 64 battery-powered streetcars in Europe, a small proportion of the total fleet.

1891 William Morrison builds the first electric automobile in the United States.

1897 The Electric Vehicle Company begins producing Electrobat electric taxicabs in New York, the first commercially-produced electric vehicles

1890 The Lohner-Porsche hybrid electric car is presented at the Paris Exposition. This hybrid electric used both gasoline and a battery, not regenerative braking.

1900 In the United States, 4,192 cars are produced this year: 1,681 steam cars, 1,575 electric, and only 936 gasoline cars, according to the U.S. Census. Statistics may be unrepresentative because of the number of electric taxis sold.

1900-1920 Many makes and models of electric, gasoline, and hybrid electric vehicles become commercially available  in the United States.

1904 More than a third of all vehicles in New York, Boston, and Chicago are electric.

1908 Henry Ford rolls out the Model T, a gas-powered car that was mass produced, initially offering the car at $850 and serially reducing the price until it reached $265 by 1923.

1912 Charles Kettering invents first practical electric starter, eliminating an advantage that electric cars held over gasoline cars.

1929 Electric car fails to compete and fades out of popularity; they’re charged higher fees for their higher weight (due to batteries), they are limited to shorter distances with few charging stations, are not as powerful. At the same time the electric starter and cheap gasoline made gas cars more desirable.

1933-1945 A second, small wave of interest in electric cars begins in England and Europe, spurred by gas rationing and World War II. German, French, and Dutch automakers produced a handful of electric vehicles. Small number of European automakers produce electric cars for transport during gasoline rationing

1949-1951 Tama Electric Motorcar Company of Tokyo sells a small electric car during Japanese gasoline shortage. However, when gas becomes available again, the electric car is discontinued.

1951-1953 The Symetric, a hybrid electric car, is made in France in the mid-1950s using plastic in the body.

1960s Experiments in electric car include a small fiberglass three-wheeler and a hybrid electric car with a nickel-cadmium battery, as well as the more popular Enfield 8000 from England. Even so, only 106 Enfields were built. Ford builds an electric car, the Comuta.

1966 First U.S. bills recommending electric vehicles.

1970 Passing of California’s Clean Air Act signifies a new era where the state takes control of its own air quality standards

1970s Throughout the 70s several more electric vehicles that are designed, though not widely sold, including the AMC Electrosport, the Sebring Vanguard Citicar and the Elcar 2000. Nissan makes the EV4P with lead-acid and zinc-air batteries, while Marathon Electric Car Company of Canada makes hundreds of C-360 vans, with six wheels and a foam-core aluminum body.

1972 Victor Wouk constructs a hybrid from 1972 Buick Skylark for Federal Clean Car Incentive Program, which is subsequently killed four years later.

1990 California passes the Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate in California, ordering that 2% of all cars sold in the state be zero emissions by ’98. The requirement extended to 5% by 2001, and 10% by 2003.

1990 General Motors introduces electric prototype car, the unfortunately-named Impact.

1990 There are 41 Stage I smog alerts in California or Los Angeles

1990 Ford produces the Ecostar electric utility van with regenerative braking.

1993 Toyota begins developing the Prius hybrid car, which can’t be plugged in but uses a battery to capitalize on regenerative braking.

1996 Electric cars hit California roads at the same time that the Sport Utility Vehicle begins gaining popularity

1996 The EV1 electric car from General Motors becomes available, but only by lease, not for purchase. It uses plastic body panels supported with aluminum, low drag, and is offered for lease only.

1996 By this time, the nickel metal-hydride battery has been developed to be large enough for a car, and this technology is used in many hybrid cars sold today.

1997 Toyota unveils the Prius hybrid car and begins sales in Japan.

1999 Honda Insight hybrid car arrives in United States.

1999 Toyota Prius arrives in California.

2001 General Motors sues the California Air Resources Board for the electric car sales quota. Other automakers join the suit against California regulators.

2000 California’s AB 2076 requires state agencies to set goals to reduce petroleum consumption.

2002 CA passes Assembly Bill 1493, regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

2003 The new model Prius released and becomes fashion statement.

2003 Various pressures kill the California electric car mandate, and automakers begin pulling their electric vehicles off the road, in some cases crushing or shredding the cars.

2004 By this time, there is only one General Motors EV1 left on the roads.

2005 California’s AB 1007 establishes statewide alternative fuels plan, reduce petroleum consumption by 15% by 2020.

2006 California passes Global Warming Solutions Act, AB 32, which sets limits on greenhouse gas emissions to be achieved by 2020.

2006 By this time almost all the electric vehicles on the road in California are gone.

2009 According to SB 17, the California Public Utilities Commission must develop smart grid deployment plan to integrate PEV technology, or plug-in electric technology.

2010 Nissan delivers the first U.S. customer the Leaf, an electric car with 100 mile range, a lithium-ion battery, and regenerative braking.

2011 The Tesla Roadster electric sports car is offered. It has a range of 245 miles but costs over $100,000.

2011 By this time, hybrids vehicles are available from Honda, GM, BMW, Ford, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Lincoln, Lexus, GMC, Hyundai, Kia, Cadillac, Porsche, Volkswagon and Ford.  Electric-only cars are available from Nissan and Tesla, as well as many neighborhood electric brands.

2011 California Energy Commission gives out millions of dollars to studying plug-in electric vehicles and energy storage.

2015 Date by which all major auto-makers have announced to produce plug-in electric vehicles, which allow “hybrid” cars with regenerative braking to be charged by plugging them in.

Click here to return to simpler timeline.


Anderson, Curtis D. and Anderson, Judy. Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2005.
Mom, Gijs. The Electric Vehicle. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Taylor, Alex. “Toyota: the Birth of the Prius.” Fortune Magazine, February 21, 2006.
“Take Charge: Establishing California’s Leadership in the Plug-In Electric Vehicle Marketplace.” California Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative
Pollack, Andrew. “General Motors Sues California Over Quota for Electric Car Sales.” The New York Times, February 24, 2001.
“Investment Plan for the Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program,” California Energy Commission, April 2009.
DRIVE California’s Alternative & Renewable Fuel & Vehicle Technology Program.
Who Killed the Electric Car, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, November 14, 2006.
U.S. Energy Information Administration

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