Gas suppliers gear up for ethanol change

Ten of the state’s largest gasoline distributors will start using biodegradable ethanol by the end of May to boost octane in place of petroleum-based MTBE.

State officials say owners of cars made in the last decade should see no change in engine performance from a tank filled with 10 percent of the renewable fuel by volume. The octane rating might be one or two points lower using the corn or soy derivative, a negligible loss of power.

Lynn Woodward, head of the state’s Waste Management Division, said Irving Oil and Getty have already begun the change. Gulf should be ready with the new blend by the end of April. Six others are shooting for May: Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips, Citgo, X-Tra Mart, Cumberland Farms and Shell.

The seals and gaskets of vintage car, boat, snowmobile, lawnmower and snowblower motors could have problems with the ethanol, Woodward warned.

“My snowblower is 30 years old,” he said. “I’ll have to make sure it’s safe.”

The state’s 1,300 or so gas station owners must be sure their storage tanks never have more than half an inch of water at the bottom, or the water will bond with the ethanol and reduce its power to burn gasoline. A couple of inches of water might drop the octane rating to 72 or 73, Woodward said.

Ethanol acts as a solvent as well. Dealers must keep it from eating plastic and fiberglass repairs to a tank or dissolving sludge into the product.

The switch in additives will comply seven months ahead of deadline with a new state law to purge nearly all methyl tertiary butyl ether from the supply. It must contain less than 0.5 percent by volume on Jan. 1.

Traces of the water-soluble ether, a suspected carcinogen, have infiltrated hundreds of public water supplies in the state since 1995, the year manufacturers began its heavy use to burn auto fuel better and cut carbon monoxide emissions.

The new federal Clean Air Act allows manufacturers to stop using MTBE and mandates at least 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol in the country’s yearly gasoline supply by 2007. That climbs to 7.5 billion gallons within several years.

Mike Fitzgerald, an air quality engineer with the state, said states like New York and California have already made the big change, with stable prices and supplies.

He assumed the industry is pushing the move because it’s profitable. Federal law gives a 5-cent tax credit for every gallon of ethanol sold retail. The rest of northern New England will switch to ethanol by Jan. 1.

Steve Dodge, a lobbyist for the New England Petroleum Institute, said his group opposed mandating so much ethanol in federal law because gas refiners can meet Clean Air Act standards without using ethanol or MTBE. Otherwise, his trade group welcomed a single standard for the whole country.

“It’s tough when every state has different rules,” Dodge said.

New Hampshire was the first state to sue the big makers of MTBE on Sept. 30, 2003, for the cost of cleaning up those water supplies. Assistant Attorney General Maureen Smith, who represents the state, declined to name a dollar figure she’s going after.

A federal court in New York City is now hearing hundreds of similar cases from across the country in the interests of judicial efficiency. If the state wins, any damages will go into an account similar to the tobacco settlement fund.


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