Ethanol mandate could have gas stations breaking EPA rules

Saturday, March 10, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In January, the mandated sale of ethanol-blended fuel could leave gas station owners deciding whether to break state or federal law.

Last year, Missouri lawmakers passed a law requiring gas station owners to sell ethanol-blended fuel when it is not more expensive than unblended gas. The law goes into effect in January.

But gas station owners say switching between types of fuel could leave them violating the Environmental Protection Agency's ozone rules.

At issue is an EPA rule that requires gas stations to sell either unblended gasoline or an ethanol blend that's 9 percent or 10 percent ethanol during warmer months, from May through September. Gas station owners say they switch tanks before they're empty, so under the state mandate they could end up selling a gasoline that has some ethanol but isn't a 9 percent ethanol blend.

"My members are literally left deciding which law to violate," said Ron Leone, an executive with the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

Gas stations likely would "commingle and just hope the EPA doesn't show up," he said.

Bills have been filed in the House and Senate that would allow fuel mixing, but state law cannot change the federal requirement, and lawmakers aren't exactly sure what to do.

"It's very seldom that I don't have an answer, but I'm before you asking," said the House's sponsor, Rep. Shannon Cooper, R-Clinton, to a committee considering the bill. "The gas station owners, the people of our state deserve some answers, and I don't know what to do."

Ethanol is a grain alcohol made by turning plant starch into sugar, fermenting it and adding a small amount of natural gasoline to make a mixture that can be used as fuel in most engines when blended, often in a 10 percent mixture with regular gas -- called E-10.

Gary Marshall, the chief executive officer of Missouri Corn Growers Association said he does not see a problem.

"If you want to switch from a blended to an unblended product, you draw the tank down and switch over," said Marshall, whose group was one of the biggest supporters of the state ethanol mandate.

Harry Gallagher, a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry trade group opposes the ethanol mandate. But if it is to remain in place, he said, lawmakers should just remove the price trigger and require ethanol all the time.

The EPA did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

However, in an e-mail responding to questions from Leone, EPA administrator John Askew wrote that the summer restrictions were put in place to reduce ozone, which is produced when ethanol blends are used in cars.

Askew wrote that alcohol in fuels increases adds organic chemicals to the atmosphere, which contributes to ozone production. Congress has approved a waiver to allow ethanol to be sold during the summer, but that waiver only applies to E-9 and E-10.

The EPA requirement is one of the few regulations for lower ethanol blends. Ron Hays, the lab director for the Division of Weights and Measures within the Department of Agriculture, said state law does not require gas stations to inform motorists that the fuel they are pumping is an ethanol blend.

"If they are advertising a 10 percent ethanol blend, then we're enforcing to make sure that they're meeting that claim," he said.

But, Hays said, "If it says 'regular unleaded,' it doesn't necessarily mean not ethanol."

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