When Harold Hoffman was an oil-company engineer several decades ago, fierce battles were fought over whose gasoline made cars work better.
Additives were mixed in. Chemicals were refined out. Costs were driven down. Ads boasted of fuels that retarded rust, added pep, and "put a tiger in your tank."
"But nobody stuck their nose up the tailpipe," said Hoffman, editor of a Houston magazine called Hydrocarbon Processing.
An industry that has for generations stressed what its products do in engines is now changing its focus to what the products do in the air. The new battleground in the "green revolution" is over the hearts and lungs of a motoring public growing increasingly concerned about the environment.
Government regulations will soon mandate big changes in gasoline. But many oil companies have jumped out front with a wave of new, "reformulated" fuels that, often for a small premium, promise to burn more cleanly and pollute less. Most environmentalists say the new formulas help a little, but if they encourage people to drive more, or reduce the urgency to find more effective solutions, the benefits will evaporate as fast as a puddle of no-lead.
And the environmental impact of these fuels varies widely between oil companies and regions, with no one other than the oil companies verifying the claims. Experts say much of what is sold as "reformulations" amounts to little more than a minor change in the recipe. Many companies sell their cleanest-burning fuels in the cities where it is mandated, marketing more polluting ones in Baltimore.
This much is clear: The industry has miles to go before it meets tough new standards going into effect over the next decade. The Clean Air Act signed into law last week by President Bush phases in stiff requirements for gasoline sold in cities with the worst air, including Baltimore:
* The first phase, 1992, requires a minimum level of additives that promote thorough burning of gasoline and reduce carbon monoxide emissions.
* By 1995, benzene levels in gas will have to be halved and the emissions of certain types of pollutants will have to be cut by 15 percent.
* In 2000, the emissions of toxics and pollutants will have to be pared by 25 percent from current levels.
Oil companies already have started selling fuels here that they claim are environmentally safer, but only one, Amoco's, meets the 1992 requirements. And even it falls short of tougher regulations going into effect in California that year.
Shell introduced its SU 2000E with a high-publicity splash in April. Exxon began in June selling a reduced-evaporation gasoline in Baltimore and has since introduced a special winter blend designed to reduce some emissions. This year, Chevron had planned to introduce in Baltimore and some other cities a reformulated premium blend, now for sale in Los Angeles. But the introduction has been postponed because of refinery and supply problems.
Amoco's reformulation went on sale here this month. An ad trumpeting the move features a drawing of a rat under the headline: "How to drive your car without feeling like this."
"They do produce slightly less of some of the urban pollutants, and in Baltimore that is a good thing. But the reduction is very small and if people drive more if won't help. Reformulated gasoline is just an attempt by the industry to sell more gasoline," said Jeanne Whalen, with the environmental group Greenpeace.
Also, while the currently available reformulations help with some of the most serious problems, they often leave untouched other, potentially dangerous emissions. And the use of additives to attack certain problems can result in higher levels of other chemicals being released.
Mary Smith, a director with an Environmental Protection Agency office in charge of auto pollution, said the environmental value of reformulated gasoline varies widely by brand. "But some things are being done that are positive," Smith said.
The EPA, however, has not performed any studies to test the claims of the oil companies. Such studies probably will be conducted when the new laws take affect.
"As far as I know, no one has been evaluating those gasolines other than the oil companies themselves," said Carol Menninga, an environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency's laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Reformulated fuels typically attack pollution two ways: by cutting the release of fumes from evaporated gasoline; and by reducing the exhaust of dangerous fumes and toxics, especially the carbon monoxide emitted in unburned gasoline from a cold engine during winter months.
Gasoline is made up of hundreds of types of molecules known as "hydrocarbons." Some of the "lighter" hydrocarbons tend to evaporate faster than others, especially in warm weather. When mixed with air and heated by the sun, the result is ozone, a dangerous lung irritant.