SACRAMENTO — Whether Californians are revolting or just hurting for cash, they are buying less gasoline in the first continuing sales-decline trend since 1992, according to the state.

Californians purchased about

15.82 billion gallons last year, down from nearly 15.94 billion gallons the previous year, a state Board of Equalization report shows. Previously, consumption had been increasing by hundreds of millions of gallons annually.

Motorists also have bought less in most of the last 12 months on record, from March 2006 to February 2007, than in the corresponding months of the previous year.

February is the latest month for which figures are available from the Board of Equalization, which tracks sales volume through collection of per-gallon taxes.

"In February 2007, Californians consumed 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline, about 31.6 million gallons, or

2.5 percent, less than February of last year," said board member Judy Chu.

The average pump price in February was $2.71 a gallon, a 17-cent increase from the same month last year.

"February is the second indication of lower consumption the board has seen recently," Chu said.

"Figures show a three consecutive-quarter drop in 2006, the first such trend in over 14 years," she said. "With the exception of an increase in consumption for January 2007, the February figure appears to continue the downward trend."

Price decreases throughout most of January likely helped increase sales. Average pump prices started the year at $2.65 and dropped to $2.53. On average, January prices were about 19 cents above those in the first month of 2006.

During the three consecutive-quarter drop at the end of last year, monthly fluctuations upward were recorded in September and October.

But overall from April through December of 2006, Californians used 165 million gallons less than during the same period the previous year. During that declining consumption, the average price was $2.95 — up 33 cents from the same period of 2005.

"Likely causes for the drop in fuel use include consumers limiting the distance they drive, car pooling and choosing more fuel-efficient vehicles, including hybrids," said board member Michelle Steele.

Consumer advocates add that they believe some motorists are strapped for cash, while others are fighting back.

Across the nation, however, gasoline demand is still rising — though prices are beginning to increase, as well.

The oil industry denies allegations of price gouging, citing fluctuations in the marketplace.

With prices upwards of $3 a gallon for California's environmentally friendly gas blend, state officials expect consumption figures to continue to decline.

Contact Steve Geissinger at (916) 447-9302.