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February 20-22, 200
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Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
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June 20-23, 200
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Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA


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Posted on  

November 15, 2001

Hoping to Fuel Demand With Supply


Washington Post Staff Writer

For nearly a decade, state and federal governments have been buying fleets of vehicles capable of running on a cleaner-burning mixture of gasoline and ethanol.

Few of the vehicles, however, have ever had a drop in their tanks because the blend is available at just 101 fuel stations nationwide -- most of them in the Midwest.

Yesterday, a mom-and-pop Chevron in Laurel became the first fuel station in Maryland and only the second in the mid-Atlantic region to offer E85, a mixture of gasoline and an alcohol fuel distilled from corn or other grains. The blend has been touted as an alternative to foreign oil and as being gentler on the environment, though the environmental claim has been debated.

Maryland Energy Administration officials hope to open E85 pumps in Annapolis, Gaithersburg and Baltimore in the next year.

At a pump festooned with red, white and blue flags, beaming auto manufacturing representatives and farmers applauded as the first state vehicle -- a standard-issue white Ford Taurus -- was filled with the blend of 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline.

"If you want people to use the fuel, you've got to provide the stations where they can buy it," said Richard F. Pecora, deputy secretary of the Maryland General Services Administration.

Aiming to reduce petroleum consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by boosting the use of alternative fuels, the federal Energy Policy Act of 1992 required that vehicles capable of running on alternative fuels make up 75 percent of state government fleets.

Under a U.S. program to encourage development of such vehicles, auto manufacturers have received credits for producing ethanol-burning cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Those credits allow the companies to build more vehicles that get lower average gas mileage. But because ethanol fuel is sold in just 20 states and, consequently, many alternative fuel vehicles are burning regular gasoline, the program has actually increased pollution, a U.S. Department of Transportation draft study concluded this year.

"Given the slow rate of growth in the alternative fuel infrastructure, it does not appear likely that any energy conservation and environmental benefits will be realized through . . . 2008 unless strong financial incentives are put in place," the report said.

After talking for more than a year with oil companies, none of which expressed any great interest in opening an E85 pump in Maryland, officials came upon Kevin Falls's Chevron Service Center.

It's a modest two-bay repair and fuel station just up the road from Fort Meade and the National Security Administration, two federal installations with growing fleets of alternative fuel vehicles. Officials lined up a U.S. Energy Department grant that would cover the cost of installing the pump, so Falls agreed.

He is selling E85 for the same price as premium gasoline -- $1.33 a gallon -- and figures that if nothing else, it will bring more customers to the part of his business that turns a profit.

"The more people you get at the pump, the more jobs we get in the [repair] bays," Falls said. "I figure this'll only help with that."

Jobs are what farmers from the Maryland Grain Producers Association see in Falls's E85 pump. They tout the fuel as a way to boost demand for corn, soybeans and other grains. "It's going to mean money in our pockets with an increase in grain prices," said Donnie Tennyson, association president.

The group is looking into building the East Coast's first ethanol production plant in Maryland, in the same way it has been done in the Midwest. There, farmers have raised money to build and operate plants that convert their corn, soybeans and other crops into ethanol, which is then mixed with gasoline and sold at service stations primarily in Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.

Officials estimate that as many as half a million vehicles in the Washington region can run on an ethanol fuel mix. Only one other station in the region sells E85 -- the Navy Annex Citgo in Alexandria, near the Pentagon.

With the opening of the E85 pump in Laurel, local auto dealerships said they will begin notifying customers who have bought alternative fuel vehicles. They also said their salespeople will make the fuel option part of their pitch.

"If you have the motivation and the fuel, we have the vehicles," said Michael Paritee, manager of alternative fuels and government sales for General Motors. Several of its vehicles -- including the 5.3-liter Suburban, Tahoe, Yukon and Yukon XLS and S-10 pickups -- can run on E85.

There is some debate over the environmental benefits of E85. Advocates tout its ability to reduce carbon monoxide emissions, but opponents note that when ethanol is blended with gasoline, the fuel evaporates at a higher rate, producing smog. Environmentalists also say distilling corn starch into ethanol is an energy-intensive process, often involving coal.

Even so, local groups welcomed the opening of the Laurel pump.

"I'd like to think that 10 years from now our farmers will be growing a lot of our energy," said Michael Heller, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Not just corn and barley, but warm-season grasses that can soak up nutrient pollution, then be harvested and turned into fuel."


 

 

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