Signs for "real gas"—that is, gas not blended with ethanol, a corn-based fuel additive—have been cropping up all over the valley, and proponents say it's better for cars, better for small engines and possibly better for Idaho farmers.
What is ethanol?
Ethanol is a corn-based fuel, related to the intoxicating ingredient found in alcoholic beverages. It's nothing new—according to numerous sources, the original Model T Ford was able to run on ethanol.
A federal mandate issued in 2006 required oil refiners to blend 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel—including 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol—into gasoline by 2022.
That's why, unless otherwise noted, most gas stations use gasoline that has been blended with the corn-based biofuel.
"The EPA mandates that we use a certain number of gallons of ethanol each year," said Carlton Carroll, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, D.C. "We're reaching the point where refineries are required to blend ethanol into almost 100 percent of their gas."
Inherently, there is nothing wrong with ethanol fuels, most experts agree. The Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol industry group, estimates that 62 percent of cars on the road today can withstand gas with an even higher amount of ethanol included than is currently available.
Carroll said that ethanol fuel actually has a higher performance level than regular petroleum.
"It does have higher octane than regular gasoline," he said—an estimated 113 rating as opposed to regular unleaded's 87 rating.
An 85 percent ethanol blend is the official race fuel of the Indy 500, and all drivers are required to use it.
But for everyday driving, Carroll said, ethanol-blended fuel might not be the best choice.
"The downside to ethanol-blended gasoline is that it doesn't get you as far," he said.
Dusty Wendland, manager of the Uptown Mini-Mart in Hailey and the Mountain View Grocery Express just south of Ketchum, said he's found that ethanol-blended gasoline actually reduces a car's fuel efficiency by about 4 percent.
The Department of Energy reports that ethanol is actually even less efficient than Wendland's estimates—30 percent less efficient than pure petroleum-based gasoline.
"We're not reducing oil dependency, and you're getting less-quality gas," Wendland said. "The stuff they're using locally in the valley is still 90 percent fossil fuel, [but] you're not 10 percent less reliant on fossil fuels."
Consumers must use more fuel in order to drive the same number of miles, Wendland said—and because ethanol blends are cheaper than nonblended gasoline, distributors have a bigger profit margin.
Wendland said the gas he buys comes at a premium of 8 to 15 cents per gallon, giving his competitors a higher profit.
"If you're making a dime extra [per gallon], that's $200 a day," he said, as his station in Hailey typically sells 2,000 gallons each day.
In addition, Wendland said he has to obtain gas from Montana, which increases his costs even further.
But it's not just the die-hard "real gas" retailers who are suffering. Idaho Farm Bureau spokesman John Thompson said Idaho farmers can't grow enough corn to feed their livestock, and the rising cost of corn due to ethanol has raised their costs.
"The corn that gets made into ethanol here in Idaho all comes mainly from Nebraska," he said. "It helps keep the price higher than it would be. Over 30 percent of the corn grown in the country [is made into ethanol]."
And the rising costs don't always result in higher market prices for farmers' beef, Thompson said.
"There's not always that connection," he said. "All red meat prices are higher now because we have had that terrible drought in Texas ... so that has reduced the availability of red meat and the prices have gone up. But it's not necessarily directly related to ethanol."
In other words, Thompson said, Idaho farmers are paying more for corn and not getting more for their cows, due to the nation's use of ethanol. Still, Thompson said the organization supports the use of ethanol fuel.
"Our organization has supported ethanol because every gallon of ethanol we produce reduces our dependence on foreign crude," he said. "But the livestock industry doesn't like it."
Proponents argue that ethanol contributes to the U.S. economy and drives fuel prices down. According to a study from the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, America's use of domestically produced ethanol reduced wholesale gas prices by an average of $1.09 a gallon in 2011—up from $0.89 in 2010.
Report co-author Dermot Hayes told the Renewable Fuels Association that ethanol has helped alleviate a number of fuel supply problems in the United States.
"It is as if the U.S. oil refining industry had found a way to extract 10 percent more gasoline from a barrel of oil," he said, adding that periodic gasoline shortages caused by refinery capacity are essentially a thing of the past.
"It ... allowed the U.S. to switch from being a net importer of gasoline to a net exporter," he said "As a result of these changes, U.S. gasoline prices are measurably lower than would otherwise have been the case."
The Renewable Fuels Association estimates that because of the price drop, the average American family—one that consumed the national average of 1,124 gallons of gasoline in 2011—saved roughly $1,200 last year. A study from the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance reported that in 2010, the global biofuels industry supported 1.4 million jobs and is expected to support 2.2 million jobs by 2020.
Ethanol as fuel
According to the Renewable Fuels Association, ethanol is safe for use in all cars and small engines. In fact, the organization's website states that 62 percent of all cars on the road today can handle gasoline with an even higher ratio of ethanol than is used currently, and that most warranties cover the use of ethanol-blended gas in small engines such as those in lawnmowers and snowmobiles.
But Randy Van Dyke, president of a motorcycle riding group called the Idaho Mountain Dirt Riders Association, said he flat-out refused to use ethanol-blended fuel in his bikes—or any of his other vehicles, for that matter.
"It's really a terrible product," he said. "It destroys the carburetors [on bikes]. Almost everyone I know gets less gas mileage and their cars run terrible."
Randy Goddard, co-owner of Woodside Motor Sports in Hailey, said it's true that ethanol is hard on smaller engines, such as those in motorcycles, snowmobiles and even chainsaws and other gas-powered tools.
Ethanol is a solvent, he said, which means it will dissolve "gunk" in the vehicles' engines and plug up the vehicles' carburetors.
Sun Valley Auto Club owner David Stone said the same is true for older, classic cars—or anything older than model year 2000.
"The cars aren't made for it," he said. "It will go in your engine, it will free up that gunk and clog the fuel filter. Because of that, the fuel pump dies. It's so bad."
Stone said the valves and fuel pumps in older cars are also damaged by the ethanol.
"Anything that's rubber, like rubber hoses, rubber valves—anything that's rubber, it ruins it," he said. "Anything plastic or rubber, ethanol hurts."
However, the Renewable Fuels Association says that newer cars are built to withstand the ethanol blend, with higher-quality rubber, metal and plastic to prevent the type of problems Stone is referring to.
Ethanol and the environment
Even if it damages older cars, the argument that ethanol reduces dependence on foreign oil could be appealing. And when the federal mandate was issued, conservationists said the possibilities of replacing fossil fuel with renewable fuels seemed worth supporting.
"A lot of environmentalists supported corn ethanol five years ago because the best science at the time showed it could be a stepping stone," Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2009. "The science changed."
According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the use of ethanol helps reduce carbon emissions by anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. In 2011, carbon emissions were reduced by 25.3 million metric tons due to the use of cleaner-burning ethanol.
However, Courtney Washburn, community conservation director for the Idaho Conservation League, said that ethanol as a whole does not make sense for Idaho's environment.
"I think a lot of people are led to believe that, but ethanol is not better for the environment," she said. "The [mandate] for ethanol would have us importing corn from other states, which would have us using more fuel. And because of the energy that does into corn production already, putting more energy into it to make it a fuel doesn't make it an environmental benefit."
Stone, Wendland and Van Dyke agreed that ethanol does not harm newer vehicles. Even though the drivers may not get optimal gas mileage using it, newer cars, especially those designated as "flex fuel" cars, have stronger plastics and rubbers that can withstand the ethanol's dissolving powers.
Still, Stone said he wouldn't use it—and he'd recommend that his customers don't either.
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org