“Why Do You Put Alcohol in Your Tank?” demands a large sign outside one gas station here, which reassures drivers that it sells only “100% Gas.”
“No Corn in Our Gas,” advertises another station nearby.
Along the highways of this sprawling prairie city, and in other pockets of the country, a mutiny is growing against energy policies that heavily support and subsidize the blending of ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, into gasoline.
Many consumers complain that ethanol, which constitutes as much as 10 percent of the fuel they buy in most states, hurts gas mileage and chokes the engines of their boats and motorcycles.
As ethanol has spread around the country, gas station owners and wholesalers are catering to concerns about ethanol that are often exaggerated but not entirely unfounded. High gas prices seem to be helping them plant seeds of doubt in customers’ minds.
“We just think it’s better for the car — we get better mileage,” said Marjorie Olbert, a retired teacher, as she filled her 2002 Toyota with what is sometimes called conventional or “clear” gasoline at a suburban E-Express station.
Stickers on the pump urge customers to “Always Demand 100% Real Gasoline.”
Olbert was unmoved by the slightly lower price of the blend.
“My husband and I just decided that the few cents difference is worth it,” she said.
Though common in the Midwest for at least a decade, ethanol-gas blends — often called gasohol — arrived on the coasts a few years ago and only recently started showing up in many southern states.
The expansion has been driven largely by federal measures requiring that 136 billion liters of biofuels a year be mixed into the nation’s gasoline supply by 2022. Last year, 25 billion liters of ethanol were mixed into a supply of 538 billion liters of gasoline.
Several states mandate ethanol blends, now found in two-thirds of the nation’s gas supply. Florida recently passed a requirement that will take effect in 2010.
Ron Lamberty of the American Coalition for Ethanol estimates that about a quarter of all gas stations across the country sell only ethanol blends, a quarter sell only unblended gas, and the other half offer both, or go back and forth depending on price.
Mike Brown, a vice president of Harris Oil, a wholesaler north of Orlando, has stuck to unblended gas, which he shuttles to large businesses like marinas and landscapers, even as many of his competitors switched to ethanol blends in May, after the changeover of a large supply terminal.
He used to deliver three or four tanker loads a week, but “we’ve added an extra load because of our new customers,” he said.
He also has a small fueling station where customers are starting to bring 19 liter gasoline cans or 208 liter drums to get their hands on ethanol-free gasoline.
The most common blend of ethanol is called E10, which is about 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol by volume. All modern nondiesel cars are certified to run on a blend of up to 10 percent.
(E85, a much higher ethanol blend of about 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, is only for vehicles specifically designated “flex fuel.”)
Liter for liter, pure ethanol contains one-third less energy than gasoline, and the ethanol industry acknowledges that E10 reduces mileage by about 2 percent.
Some drivers think the change is greater. Chuck Mai, a vice president of AAA Oklahoma, reported that members of his organization have been blaming E10 for mileage drops of 8 percent to 20 percent.