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Lawrence gas station owner gets caught up in national battle with Big Oil over future of ethanol

Being a pioneer in a new industry can be a bit like taking a ride in my old F150: It can get mighty bumpy, and you’re wishing you would have known beforehand that the brakes sometimes don’t work.

Scott Zaremba, owner of the Lawrence-based Zarco 66 gasoline and convenience store chain, has been a pioneer in the industry of E15 ethanol. As we’ve previously reported, Zaremba’s Zarco chain became the first in the country to sell the E15 product, which is gasoline that contains 15 percent ethanol rather than the more standard blend of 10 percent ethanol.

According to an article this week from the news organization Reuters, Zaremba is finding out how rough the ride can be in the E15 industry. The article paints a picture of some of the largest companies on the planet — oil companies like Exxon, Chevron, BP, and Phillips 66 — taking aim at the E15 industry. Zaremba and his Zarco stations, apparently, have become one of the first targets.

Phillips 66 has sent Zaremba a new set of regulations on how he must sell the E15 product in order to stay in compliance with his marketing contract with Phillips 66. The end result has been Zaremba stopped selling the E15 product at his stations last month. It is estimated there are now fewer than 30 stations nationwide that sell the product.

The new protocols would require Zaremba to add special yellow hoses to all his pumps to dispense the E15 product. Previously, Zarco dispensed the product through the same hose that carried traditional unleaded gasoline, which has up to 10 percent ethanol in it.

Zaremba said adding the hoses would cost several hundred thousand dollars. In the Reuters article, Phillips 66 officials said the change is about ensuring motorists know that they are buying a different product than traditional gasoline. The article notes that use of E15 can void the warranty of many vehicles that are older than 2013 models.

But Zaremba told me he’s convinced the new regulations are part of an effort by Big Oil to nip the E15 trend in the bud. Zaremba said the stakes are significant for Big Oil because E15, if widely adopted, could reduce the oil company’s market share in the gasoline industry by 5 percent. In addition, it would create new competitive pressures that, in theory, would help control the upward price pressures in gasoline.

“I’ve had people complain to me for 40 years about the price of fuel,” Zaremba said. “I tell them we need to find something different. That is what we’re trying to do.”

Zaremba, who also is an advocate for biodiesel, compressed natural gas and other fuel alternatives, said he knows ethanol has received some negative publicity because of the impact it may have on the country’s food supply and the amount of water it takes to produce.

But he said the potential is strong for ethanol to be produced from other nonfood-producing crops, if the ethanol market can withstand the negative publicity that he believes is being generated by the Big Oil companies.

Zaremba, who is the president of the state’s petroleum marketers association and also an officer with the national trade group, said the figures he’s seen indicate the big oil companies will spend tens of millions of dollars this year lobbying against the E15 product.

“I understand what is going on,” Zaremba said. “If you were making a billion dollars a quarter, would you want some little guy from Kansas trying to change your dynamic? Of course you wouldn’t. Would you try to create every negative article you could to protect your product? I bet you would.”

As for the future of E15 in Lawrence, Zaremba said he’s not sure at the moment. He said he hasn’t yet filed any legal action against Phillips 66, but said he’s still crafting a strategy that would allow him to resume selling the product at some point.

“When you are the first, it is never easy,” Zaremba said. “That’s where we are right now. But I chose this path because I believe we have to do something different.”

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