Change eases sales of ethanol, biodiesel

A few months ago, Wednesday’s announcement by the Kansas Department of Agriculture would have been big news to motorists across the state.

The state announced it is making significant changes to its regulations that will make it easier for Kansas gasoline stations to sell multiple types of ethanol and biodiesel fuels.

Of course, several months ago, gasoline was near $4 a gallon, and motorists were vowing to never again find themselves so bent over a foreign oil barrel.

Today, with gasoline under $2 a gallon, memories have grown shorter.

“Sometimes people don’t remember where we were and what happened to us,” said Scott Zaremba, an owner of the Zarco 66 Earth Friendly Fuels station at Ninth and Iowa streets. “That is one of my challenges — reminding people where we were and what could happen to us again.”

But Zaremba thinks Wednesday’s new regulations may indeed end up being important in the long run. Basically, the new rules should make it much easier for gasoline stations to sell E-85 ethanol — fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent traditional petroleum-based gasoline. The E-85 ethanol can only be used by vehicles that are equipped with special “flex-fuel” engines, but one of the challenges in getting more of those vehicles on the road has been the limited number of places that motorists can buy the fuel.

In February, Zaremba opened the first station in the state that specialized in selling ethanol and biodiesel-based fuels. The operation works because the station is able to “blend” its own fuels on site. In other words, the site contains tanks of traditional gasoline and tanks of pure ethanol. The station operates special pumps that mechanically mix the two products to produce the proper ratio of ethanol to gasoline.

The state’s department of agriculture — which regulates all gas pumps in the state — allowed Zaremba to install the special pumps as a part of a pilot project. Since then, five other stations — in Blue Rapids, Colwich, Garden City, Topeka and Dodge City — joined the pilot project.

On Wednesday, the agriculture department said it would begin allowing stations across the state to begin using the pumps, after it was determined the devices consistently produced the proper mixture of fuel.

The pumps will allow stations to sell more than just the E-85 ethanol. The pumps can be set to dispense E-10, E-20, E-30 and E-50 blends as well. That could end up being important because Zaremba said efforts are under way to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a ruling that conventional engines can safely operate on fuel that contains up to 30 percent ethanol.

“That’s what studies are showing,” Zaremba said.

But currently, putting anything more than E-10 fuel in a standard engine typically will void the vehicle’s warranty.

Convincing consumers that the ethanol fuels are the best value may be the real challenge, said some fuel industry executives. As gasoline prices have declined, ethanol — which doesn’t produce as much energy per gallon as gasoline — has become less competitive on price.

“I can tell you that the consumer is still looking for the best deal available to them,” said Curt Wright, with Wellsville-based Taylor Oil, which ships fuel to service stations. “I’m not sure many of them are stopping to take into account where the product comes from.”