David Davis pumps gas into his gas can at Town & Country store. Special to The Commercial/Bo Rogers
The introduction of ethanol-blended gasoline into the nation’s fuel supply was intended to reduce United States dependence on crude oil, but the demonstrated negative effects of ethanol on fuel economy and engine wear have led a small but committed group of gasoline retailers around the nation to sell at least some grades of conventional gasoline.
In Arkansas a total of 248 stations sell at least one grade of ethanol-free fuel, according to the website www.pure-gas.org, with five of them in Jefferson County.
Scott Ray, owner of Sandy Acres Grocery and Market on U.S. 270 in White Hall, sells 93 octane ethanol-free premium gas under the Valero brand.
“My premium doesn’t have any ethanol because my customers asked for it, especially those with outboard boat motors, lawnmowers and other small engines,” Ray said. “It eats away at the rubber seals and gums the engines up due to the alcohol content. It costs me five more cents a gallon to go with the conventional premium but I don’t pass that on to my customers.
“I wish I could sell all grades of ethanol-free gas,” Ray said. “I didn’t sell ethanol fuel the first few years they had it but it just got too expensive not to. The conventional gas is priced five cents a gallon more because of the incentives the federal government gives for selling ethanol-blended gasoline.”
Nobel Wilson owns the Town & Country Grocery at the corner of Old Warren and Middle Warren Roads as well as the Duck In & Go at the intersection of U.S. 63 and Arkansas 54, both of which sell unbranded conventional gas in all three grades.
“Ethanol has a higher octane than conventional gasoline but you can’t use it because the engine compression is set at the factory,” Wilson said as he explained that many vehicles on the road have engines with compression ratios set too low to take advantage of the higher octane levels. “One of my customers drives a van that he has all of his tools in. He got 10 miles per gallon with ethanol-blended gas but once he started coming to me his mileage increased to 12.5 miles per gallon.”
Wilson said that people who are simply looking for the lowest fuel cost may be missing the big picture.
“If you look at the wear and tear that ethanol puts on many vehicle engines and the fact that many of them have to be replaced, the cost involved will likely exceed the amount of money you save by purchasing the cheaper ethanol-blended fuel,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that another drawback to ethanol as he sees it is the amount of energy used to produce it.
“It takes more energy to produce ethanol than it burns,” Wilson said. “The process of producing ethanol uses tractors in the field where the corn is grown and machines that process the corn into the ethanol product, all of which are consuming energy.”
Wilson also said a prime motivation for selling gas without ethanol is the relief it gives to owners of outboard boat motors, lawnmowers and other equipment powered by small engines.
“We have people drive 30 or 40 miles to buy their gas at one of our stations,” Wilson said.
Wilson explained that vehicles capable of burning the purest form of ethanol fuel, known as E85 for its 85 percent ethanol content, are built with stainless steel fuel lines and fuel tanks to be able to stand up to the high alcohol content.
Scott Lockhart owns Terri’s on River Road in Redfield and sells unbranded conventional regular unleaded 87 octane fuel because of the number of anglers that stop by his business.
“A lot of fishermen come through here and they can’t use the ethanol-blended fuel because of the damage it does to their boat motors,” Lockhart said. “The alcohol content of ethanol eats away at the rubber and plastic parts. I’ll keep selling the conventional gas until they say I can’t.”
Lockhart said it can be difficult to find fuel that contains no ethanol.
“At times it is harder to come by,” Lockhart said. “Sometimes I have to get it from as far away as Fort Smith.”
The other area station that sells conventional fuel is the Circle N 65/81 Truck Stop at the intersection of U.S. 65 and Arkansas 81 south of Pine Bluff, which sells Citgo 87 octane regular unleaded.
Wilford Jones, chemist supervisor of petroleum products with the Arkansas State Plant Board, discussed the drawbacks of ethanol.
“Ethanol produces less gas mileage in vehicles,” Jones said. “When the government outlawed MBTE [a fuel additive used to raise the octane number] because it was getting into groundwater, they decided to use ethanol. Ethanol causes a lot of low performance dealing with vapor pressure. That’s why there is so much regulation on it regarding the amount of water that can be in storage tanks. It was two inches for conventional gas but just a quarter of an inch is allowed for the storage of ethanol-blended gas.
“From what I have read and researched, ethanol actually shortens the lifespans of vehicle engines,” Jones said. “An engine has to be made out of a certain kind of metal to reduce the amount of engine wear caused by ethanol. Two-cycle engines like on Weedeaters are damaged by ethanol. Some boat engines have the same problem.”
Jones said the reason for the prevalence of ethanol-blended fuel is because of the federal tax breaks fuel providers receive for selling it.
“In Arkansas gas can have up to 10 percent ethanol, which is known as E10,” Jones said. “There are a couple of places where E30 or E85 is available in the state but the pumps have to be separate and labeled as flex fuel.”
Bobby Coats, agricultural policy analyst with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, said ethanol is an important part of the country’s energy security strategy.
“Today, all countries are extremely focused on (energy security),” Coates said. “The global economy has some huge economic challenges that have to be dealt with. If you’re going to use corn to produce energy there is a high probability that it is going to impact the price of corn and in the process raise the price of food for the consumer. In any given year if the global trade in oil was significantly curtailed then all at once you would find ethanol production and development extremely important to this country.”
Coats said the United States is simultaneously working to have a stable, viable food sector and a viable energy supply.
“What is extremely important for us as a country and for others is to accelerate the development of alternative fuel biotechnologies and as we do so it will allow us to move away from such a strong focus on corn in the production of ethanol,” Coats said. “Researchers are working toward the use of forage plants such as switchgrass and even algae in ethanol production. The United States Department of Agriculture has a strong focus and emphasis on advancing the whole biofuels and bioenergy sector and justifiably so. If Middle East oil cut off tomorrow people would be writing stories about how farsighted the USDA was.”
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that annual production of ethanol jumped from 3.8 billion gallons in 2005 to 13.95 billion gallons in 2011.
A pair of research scientists found in a study entitled ‘The Impact of Ethanol Production on U.S. and Regional Gasoline Markets: An Update to 2012’, that the increased use of ethanol allowed the price of wholesale unleaded gasoline to drop an average of $1.09 per gallon in 2011.
Xiaodong Du, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dermot Hayes, professor of economics and finance at Iowa State University, updated earlier findings on the impact of ethanol production on U.S. and regional gasoline markets by extending the data analysis to December 2011.
The results indicate that from January 2000 to December 2011, the growth in ethanol production reduced wholesale gasoline prices by an average of 29 cents per gallon across all regions.
The Midwest region experienced the biggest price reduction of 45 cents per gallon, while the East Coast, West Coast, and Gulf Coast regions saw price reductions around 20 cents per gallon.
Based on the 2011 data only, the scientists found the impacts on gasoline prices were substantially higher because of the increasing ethanol production and higher crude oil prices. The average effect across all regions increased to $1.09 per gallon and the regional impacts ranged from 73 cents per gallon in the Gulf Coast to $1.69 per gallon in the Midwest.
The Environmental Protection Agency made two decisions in the last couple of years that allow for but do not require the introduction of E15, or 15 percent ethanol fuel, into the fuel supply for cars and trucks built in 2001 and after.
Older vehicles cannot use E15 because of the potential for damage to engines and fuel systems.
Concern is growing among corn producers over a drop in demand for gasoline and consequently for ethanol. The USEIA reports that after 15 years of growth, ethanol production this year is forecast to drop slightly and to stay about the same in 2013.