Lawrence is about to become the state's ethanol capital Â for a day, at least.
Several area farm organizations will gather July 3 in the city to promote ethanol.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to get the idea across that your car isn't going to blow up if you use ethanol in it," said Les Regier of the Kansas Farm Bureau.
The Douglas County Farm Bureau and Johnson County Farm Bureau are sponsoring an "ethanol rally" at Kwik Shop, Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, where drivers who fill up with an ethanol-blended gasoline will receive 10 cents off every gallon of fuel.
Regier admits that he may be exaggerating slightly when he says consumers are afraid their cars may explode, but ethanol proponents say there are lots of negative myths about the fuel, which is produced primarily from corn or other starchy crops.
Dispelling those myths is the key to increasing ethanol consumption, which Farm Bureau members say could do wonders for the Kansas agriculture economy.
"Just mass education about the product is the biggest thing we need right now," said Brian Pine, a Lawrence farmer and an organizer of the rally. "We have to get people to understand that it is good for their engines, good for the farmer, good for the environment, and good for the country because it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
"To me, when you add all that up, it just seems like it would be common sense for people to use it. I think more people will feel that way once they learn about it."
Bad first impression
Part of the problem, Pine and others said, is that many consumers may be remembering their experience with ethanol in the 1970s when it first became popular because of soaring gas prices.
Drivers complained the fuel created engine problems and harmed vehicle performance. Regier said such problems happened because the ethanol was cleaning lead deposits out of the fuel lines of the vehicles, many of which used leaded gasoline. Those newly-freed lead deposits often would cause a vehicle's fuel filter to become clogged and create performance problems.
Today, most vehicles on the road never have used leaded gasoline, which means the chance of ethanol creating such problems is greatly reduced.
"We think it actually improves the performance of engines because it is a cooler, cleaner burning fuel than standard gasoline," said Sue Schulte, director of communications with the Kansas Corn Growers Assn. "The problems you hear associated with ethanol now are really just myths."
Paying the price
What isn't a myth is that ethanol-blended gasoline is not nearly as easy to buy as standard gasoline. Johnson County agriculture leaders, in fact, are having their rally in conjunction with the Douglas County Farm Bureau because they say there are no gas stations in Johnson County that sell the so-called E-10 fuel, which is a mixture of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.
Douglas County Farm Bureau officials say there are eight stations in Lawrence that sell the product. And Schulte said the majority of stations across Kansas do not sell the ethanol-blended fuel.
Tom Palace, executive director of the Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association of Kansas, said there was a simple reason for the lack of ethanol retailers Â price. He said the price per gallon for ethanol-blended fuel has been 2 cents to 5 cents higher than standard gasoline.
"We don't have anything against ethanol," Palace said. "It can be a useful product but until we can make it more affordable, most consumers just won't buy it."
Palace said he didn't see that day coming anytime soon. He said a major challenge ethanol faced was a lack of an efficient, nationwide distribution system. Standard gasoline routinely is transported through pipelines. Those pipelines can't be used to transport ethanol, and currently there is no pipeline system for ethanol. That means ethanol has to be transported by truck or train, which increases costs.
And for whatever reason, Palace said, consumers haven't jumped on the bandwagon about the claims that ethanol will help the environment and help farmers.
"Most consumers make their buying decision one way and one way only," Palace said. "They pull up to the pump and look at the price and buy the cheapest one."
Palace doesn't dispute the idea that ethanol is kinder to the environment than standard gasoline. He agrees most studies show ethanol blended fuel would release less pollutants in the air. But he's not so sure about the claim it financially will help corn farmers.
"You can look at the price of ethanol now and it goes up or down with the price of gasoline, not with the price of corn, which leads me to believe maybe it won't have that much affect on corn prices," Palace said.
The best hope
Agriculture leaders, however, are confident increased ethanol production financially would benefit farmers.
Schulte said her association hasn't been able to estimate how much increased ethanol production would add to the price of a bushel of corn in the state, but she believes simple supply-and-demand factors would drive the price up.
"Basically whenever you're dealing with a commodity, like corn, anytime you can increase demand it will improve the price you can sell it for," Schulte said. "If we can increase ethanol use, we'll have created a big user of corn."
Pine is among the area farmers enthused about the price prospects.
"To me it is the quickest and most realistic hope I can see for improving prices," Pine said. "There's lots of talk about marketing our crops overseas better, and that's great, but this ethanol idea seems to be not so far off in the future.
"Plus, I think it is one of the better ways farmers can be directly involved in the solution. If we can convince more people to use more ethanol it will help us, and that's what we hope to do with this rally."
The right time
Ethanol supporters say they believe it is time to start encouraging ethanol use. The country's war on terrorism is one of the leading reasons, they said.
"During these times we're in now, we hear a lot of people talking about how the U.S. needs to be less dependent on foreign oil," said Norraine Wingfield, county coordinator for Douglas County Farm Bureau. "Here's a chance to do that."
Ethanol, however, wouldn't eliminate the country's need for foreign oil because today's vehicles haven't been designed to run on pure ethanol. Instead, ethanol is blended with standard gasoline. The two most common types of ethanol-blended fuels are E-10, which contains 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline and E-85 which contains 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline.
All major models of modern cars have engines designed to run on E-10, which is the type of blended ethanol sold in Lawrence. The E-85 type only can be used in certain models of engines.
Environmental policy Â not foreign policy Â may be the biggest factor giving ethanol its current push.
In particular, California, the largest user of American gasoline, has regulations that require motor fuels to contain at least 10 percent of an "oxygenate," which is an additive that helps the fuel burn cleaner.
Ethanol is considered an oxygenate but currently the petroleum industry uses a different type of oxygenate called MTBE, in large part because it is a petroleum byproduct.
California lawmakers, however, will ban the use of MTBE by the end of 2003 because they have concerns that it creates severe groundwater contamination. Most major petroleum companies supplying gasoline to California have announced they'll use ethanol to replace MTBE.
That's expected to create a new demand of 675 million gallons of ethanol a year, Schulte said. Kansans are looking to get their share of the new market. Currently the state's five ethanol plants, including Midwest Grain Products Inc. in Atchison, produce 75 million gallons of ethanol a year. Groups in two more Kansas communities Â Garnett and Leoti Â are conducting studies on the feasibility of building plants in those towns.
Schulte said she expects more groups will begin studying new locations for plants because more laws like California's soon may be enacted by other states.
"Many people don't think California will be the last to ban MTBE," Schulte said.
"We think the trend is there for it to eventually become a national ban, which would have huge implications for ethanol. People are excited about the prospects. We may be on to something."