The northeastern region of the U.S. is one of the RFG (Reformulated Gas) Areas where the EPA dictates the use of an oxygenate in gasoline to lower carbon monoxide emissions. In the U.S., ethanol is the most common oxygenate, in addition to it raising a fuel’s AKI (Anti-Knock Index, commonly called octane) rating by about 2-3 points. Oil companies, realizing a means to lower the cost of refining, typically deliver a sub-octane fuel known as BOB (Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending) to fuel terminals in there areas, where ethanol is then blended into the fuel. This is the reason that in RFG areas one has difficulty finding ethanol-free fuel, as can be seen by comparing the RFG map to Pure-Gas.org map.
Without ethanol, BOB’s AKI rating is only 84, below the needed 87 for the cheapest Regular gas. BOB is not a legal “finished” fuel until ethanol is added. Thus, any disruption in the supply of ethanol (such as a storm or ethanol rail car explosion) will affect an oil company’s ability to provide finished gasoline. Prior to Sandy’s making landfall, this CNBC article summed up the danger simply: “Bottom line — if we run out of ethanol we run out of gasoline.”
My cousin Robert Misegades, who lives near Bethpage, N.Y., on Long Island, sent me a short message a few days ago explaining why gasoline supplies have been slow to recover in areas affected by last week’s storm: “The delivery supply tanker trucks are waiting in line for 2-3 hours because the depot has a shortage of ethanol. They are deliberately slowing the mixing process so they do not run out of ethanol. On TV we have seen the lines of tankers at the depot. The truck drivers are as frustrated as the gas customers who are waiting in line for gas at local stations. Today I stood (as in, on foot) in line for 1-1/2 hours for 4.8 gallons of gasoline.”
The Chicago Tribune reported on Oct. 31 that the EPA has temporarily set aside the requirement for an oxygenate to get fuel flowing again in storm-stricken parts of NY and NJ.
“I have determined that an ‘extreme and unusual fuel supply circumstance’ exists that will prevent the distribution of an adequate supply of gasoline to consumers,” Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a letter on Wednesday to governors of the states. New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and 13 other states had requested a waiver in requirements to sell reformulated gasoline, or RFG, in smog-plagued regions of the country. The waiver also applies to states in the mid-Atlantic including Maryland and states in the South including Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina…..Under the waiver the EPA will allow fuel retailers to sell conventional gasoline in place of RFG effective immediately. It also allows some states to mix conventional and RFG to ease supply issues.
What the article fails to mention is that consumers in areas affected by the storm are now potentially being sold a sub-octane fuel that could cause any number of problems when used, ranging from difficulty when starting (especially in colder weather), lower mileage and knocking. We know of its effects as a result of the illegal sale of sub-octane fuel in the west in recent years, as described in this article from the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D. Engines today are not tested nor warrantied for fuel having a rating under 87 AKI, so any damage caused by a sub-octane BOB fuel will not be covered by manufacturers. Since the damage may not lead to early failure until months or years later, it will be nearly impossible for consumers to prove that this loss was caused by BOB.
A simple solution to the unintended consequences of RFG requirements and ethanol mandates does exist: the EPA could ban the use of any ethanol in premium fuel, and exempt premium fuel from its RFG requirements. This would not only preserve an ethanol-free fuel when ethanol supplies are low as in NY/NJ, but would support aviation’s urgent need for a lead-free alternative to avgas.
The GAfuels Blog is written by two private pilots concerned about the future availability of fuels for piston-engine aircraft: Dean Billing, Sisters, Ore., a pilot, homebuilder and expert on autogas and ethanol, and Kent Misegades, Cary, N.C., an aerospace engineer, aviation sales rep for U-Fuel, and president of EAA1114.