Operations

Oil Company Rules An Inhibitor to Ethanol Fuel Station Growth

LCT Staff
Posted on April 4, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Bush, domestic automakers, farmers and others tout ethanol as a home-grown alternative to imported oil. Across the Midwest, plants that make the fuel out of corn are multiplying at a fast pace. Yet so far, only a tiny fraction of U.S. service stations let a driver fill up with ethanol. There are a number of reasons, but one big one is resistance from oil companies.

Although some oil executives voice enthusiasm for alternative fuels, oil-company policies make it harder for many service stations to stock a fuel called E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. These policies are hardly the only barrier to wide use of the ethanol fuel. Demand is limited by the small number of vehicles that can burn it — only about 5% of those on the road in America. It can be slightly costlier to burn E85, even though it costs less per gallon, because a car doesn't go as far on a gallon of the ethanol fuel as on gasoline. These demand restraints would limit service-station owners' enthusiasm for spending on the equipment needed to offer E85 even if the policies of the oil companies were not a factor.

But those policies add a significant extra obstacle. Oil companies lose sales every time a driver chooses E85, and they employ a variety of tactics that help keep the fuel out of stations that bear the company name. For instance, franchises sometimes are required to purchase all the fuel they sell from the oil company. Since oil companies generally don't sell E85, the stations can't either, unless the company grants an exception and lets them buy from another supplier. Contracts sometimes limit advertising of E85 and restrict the use of credit cards to pay for it. Some require that any E85 pump be on a separate island, not under the main canopy.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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