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Posted on  

October 2, 2002

El Paso goes to oxygenated fuel today

To help reduce carbon monoxide emissions from vehicles, El Paso gas stations will begin selling gasoline blended with ethanol today through March 31.

Alcohol and automobiles normally are a bad mix, but Gerardo Saucedo says he'll welcome a shot of ethanol --in the gas tank of his 1990 Ford Taurus.

Beginning today, all gas stations in El Paso are supposed to be pumping gasoline with added ethanol to make the fuel burn cleaner and reduce pollution during the coming cold months.

Since 1992, El Paso has made the switch to this "oxygenated fuel" from Oct. 1 through March 31 to cut down on carbon-monoxide emissions.

Officials said the fuel costs gas stations a few more cents per gallon, although that doesn't necessarily mean an automatic price increase on the first of October.

"I don't mind if it's a few cents more," said Saucedo, a 17-year-old Hanks High senior who spends about $35 on gas each month. "If it's for clean air -- if we can make our environment more cleaner -- it would be good."

Jesus Reynoso, Air Quality Program manager for the El Paso City-County Health and Environmental District, said the annual switch to oxygenated fuel has significantly reduced the number of days a year that El Paso violates the Environmental Protection Agency standard for carbon-monoxide levels.

"Previous to 1992, we were exceeding the standard 12 to 15 times a year, but ever sincethen we've only exceeded the standard either zero times a year or a maximum of once a year," Reynoso said.

The extra oxygen that ethanol adds to fuel promotes cleaner combustion in cold weather, especially in older vehicles that don't have computer chips that monitor and adjust fuel carburetion, Reynoso said.

"Since El Paso and Juárez have an older fleet (of vehicles) as compared to other cities, (oxygenated fuel) has shown that it is very effective," Reynoso said.

When ethanol-blended fuels were introduced in the early 1980s, some car owners complained of gummed-up fuel filters and of elastomer fuel-system parts that deteriorated because of the new gas. The ethanol industry trade group Renewable Fuels Association says those problems no longer exist because cars now have been running for years on cleaner-burning fuels with ethanol and detergents.

Also, auto manufacturers now design their cars to be compatible with ethanol fuels.

William McCormick, an auto mechanic at Dick's Automotive Services in El Paso, said drivers should not have any problems with the oxygenated fuels if their cars are "running good and properly tuned."

"It helps it burn a little bit cleaner. If you keep your car running how it should, keep it up to emissions standards ... the fuel will run cleaner. You won't have as much a build-up of carbon on the pistons," McCormick said.

Kevin Smith, air-programs manager of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (formerly known as the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission), said the agency checks El Paso stations to see if they are selling only oxygenated gas Oct. 1 to March 31.

Fines can range from hundreds of dollars for first-time violations to thousands of dollars for stations that rack up several violations, he said. Five to 10 citations a year were not uncommon during the first years of the program, but no citations were issued this past year, Smith said.

Inspectors from the El Paso City-County Health and Environmental District "are so vigorous with their enforcement, I'm sure the stations have gotten the message," Smith said.

Reynoso said Juárez gas stations also sell oxygenated fuels during cold months, but their fuels are not as effective in reducing emissions as the fuel sold in El Paso, because Juárez uses less oxygenating additives.

Doña Ana County doesn't use oxygenated fuels because it is not mandated by the federal government, county officials said.

Reynoso said he and other environmental officials have long pushed Mexico to change its laws to require cleaner-burning gasoline and also have been trying to convince Doña Ana County to adopt an oxygenated fuel program.

"On the Mexican side, they would need a change in the law ... On the New Mexico side, they figure they don't need it, because they don't have that many residents," Reynoso said.

Because of past clean-air violations, the EPA has designated El Paso as a "nonattainment" city for not meeting the Clean Air Act standards for carbon monoxide, ozone and particulate matter, Reynoso said.

But he said because of the success in recent years of initiatives like the oxygenated-fuel program, local environmental officials and legislators are planning to ask the EPA to reclassify El Paso as a clean-air "attainment" city.

Approval to reclassify El Paso as an "attainment" city would have to come from some of the highest levels of the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, so the process could take as long as two years, Reynoso said.

It will take "at least a couple of years, but we all feel we are at that point, that it's time to give El Paso the credit that it deserves and get that 'dark cloud' of the nonattainment designation away from El Paso," Reynoso said.

But if El Paso officially reaches clean-air attainment, it doesn't mean the city can go back to its old polluting ways, Reynoso said. The oxygenated fuel program and other initiatives will continue.



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