A costlier tiger in tank is price of cleaner gas

October 31, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer Staff writers Patrick Gilbert, Traci Johnson, Frank Lynch, John Morris and Melody Simmons contributed to this story.

Like it nor not, motorists throughout the Baltimore and Washington areas probably will pay a little more to breathe cleaner air this winter. Cars and trucks in the two metropolitan areas will be polluting less for the next four months, thanks to a cleaner-burning fuel required by the federal government.

"Oxygenated" gasoline, which has been on sale in some service stations for weeks, will be the only gas available throughout the region for the next four months, beginning tomorrow.

It smells a little different, somewhat like paint thinner. And it could cost an extra 2 to 5 cents a gallon, according to Maryland officials.

But let the buyer beware: Some service stations apparently have boosted prices more than officials say it should cost to make the new fuel, while others aren't charging a penny more than they used to.

Chester Williams didn't notice anything different about the gas -- except the higher cost -- when he refueled his car yesterday at the Perring Parkway Shell station in Baltimore County.

"I only put in $4 worth instead of filling up, because of the price," he said, complaining that gasoline had gone up three cents a gallon since his last visit.

The oxygen-rich fuel is required by the 1990 federal Clean Air Act in Baltimore, Washington and 37 other urban areas that have had unhealthful levels of carbon monoxide in their air.

High levels of carbon monoxide, a colorless odorless gas, can cause unconsciousness and death. But even at low levels, the gas can cause headaches, dizziness and respiratory problems.

Motor vehicles release most of the carbon monoxide in the air in the Baltimore and Washington areas. It is emitted when a vehicle's engine is warming up, so it is a greater problem in winter and in high-traffic areas.

Gasoline is "oxygenated" by blending it with a chemical compound containing oxygen. The two compounds used by the petroleum industry are methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and ethanol. Such additives should reduce emissions of carbon monoxide from cars and trucks by 15 to 20 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Almost all fuel sold in Maryland is likely to contain MTBE because fuelscontaining ethanol have to be shipped here by truck, say officials. By contrast, fuels blended with the other additive can be brought by pipeline. When MTBE is used, the fuel must contain at least 2.7 percent by weight, or up to 15 percent by volume, according to federal rules.

Oxygen-rich gas is no more or less likely to explode, say industry officials, and there should not be any effect on an engine's performance. Motorists may notice slightly decreased fuel efficiency, but mileage per gallon slips anyway during the winter because engines are less efficient in cold weather, said Daniel Meszler, chief of motor vehicle pollution controls for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The new fuel does have a distinctive smell, according to industry spokesmen. "It's a little on the sweet side, like a paint thinner," said Chuck Coe, technical manager for Mobil Corp.

The thing most motorists are likely to notice, though, is a higher price. Mr. Meszler said he figures the added cost of oxygen-rich gas should be about 2 cents a gallon, but no more than 5 cents. Industry spokesmen contend the added cost is more likely to be 7 to 10 cents.

"It costs us more to supply oxygenated gasoline," said Don Turk, a Mobil spokesman. "We would like to be able to recover that cost, but whether we will or not is going to depend on conditions on the street."

A check of pumps around the Baltimore area yesterday found prices for oxygen-rich gas that varied by as much as 20 cents per gallon. The lowest was 99.9 cents for self-serve, unleaded regular at a Southern States station in Westminster to $1.19 for the same grade of gas at an Amoco station in Baltimre. Prices have remained unchanged at some stations, while others have gone up by as much as 10 cents.

Service stations were supposed to put stickers on their pumps explaining they are selling new "oxygenated" blends of gas. But many motorists interviewed as they filled up yesterday didn't have a clue they were putting a different type of tiger in their tanks, or why.

Some pumps had no stickers, and some motorists simply failed to notice the small printed announcements.

"To me, it's just another case of big oil companies sticking it to the American public," groused Bill Geary, a retiree from Edgewood.

But others seemed not to mind.

"The way gas fluctuates these days, I don't notice anymore," said William Addison of St. Margarets. Most service station managers said they had received a few questions and gripes from their customers, but no major complaints.

"If it will do better for the environment, they will go for it, even if it costs more," predicted Manny Ferrante, part-owner of an Exxon station at Belvedere Avenue and York Road in Baltimore.

Ironically, carbon monoxide levels in Baltimore and Washington have not posed a problem the past two winters, according to state and federal officials.

The gas had reached unhealthful levels in downtown Baltimore at least one or two days each fall and winter. But emissions have decreased in recent years, due largely to better pollution controls on cars and trucks. Even so, oxygen-rich fuels are likely to become a wintertime staple for years to come. State officials say the federal government is likely to require their continued sale to ensure that carbon monoxide problems do not return.

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