Ed Wallace

Gasoline: Pump Us Up?

By Ed Wallace

Special to the Star-Telegram


Charles Kettering had no sooner invented the electric starter for automobiles, giving IBM’s future founder, Thomas Watson, the first ride, thanGeneral Motors absorbed his small company.At GM Kettering would become the 20th century’s most prolific inventor. Just four years after the self-starter became the first true automobile safety device, however, Kettering was wondering just how much future the automobile industry had left;in the research he and his staff had been doingto find a way to stop engine knock, Kettering had come across studiessuggesting that,as the automotive age increased the demand for oil, the world’s supply of crude would be gone by 1940.

In 1916, armed with this critical information, Kettering rushed to the office of Billy Durant, who had just wrested control of General Motors back from the bankers who had ousted him years earlier.The poor prognosis he’d found for the industryhad convincedKetteringthat GM urgently needed to fund research to find an alternate fuel; gasoline would one day become nonexistent, and the clock was ticking. Durant listened as best he could, thought about what Kettering had told him and calmly said, “They’ll find more oil before you can find an alternative fuel.”

Back at his lab, and thanks to the work of Thomas Midgely, five years later Kettering brought tetra ethyl lead to the market. With this additive GM had solved the problem of engine knock;now it could create higher combustion engines, which also improved fuel efficiency. For the record, the world did not run out of oil in 1940. However, quicklya lot of refinery workersbecame seriously ill working with tetra ethyl lead for fuels. Come to think of it, each following decade also contaminated everyone; elevated levels of lead were found in the bloodstreams of virtually everyone tested. But, as they say, that was the price of progress. Cars became more powerful and delivered better fuel economy, and modern aircraft would also benefit from this new high octanefuel.

But from day one most understood there was a problem with leaded fuels. By the Fifties the medical research being done was not kind to that fuel, but because of the work of those producing tetra ethyl lead and gasoline, and our love of mobility, the public was blissfully unaware of the serious long term health issues. Of course, lead was also found in our paint at the time, and in our water pipes — the potential for harm of which was highlighted recently by the Flint Water Crisis.But,reading of the dangers of lead while calmly smoking our cigarettes, because dentist and famed pro golfer Dr. Cary Middlecoff endorsed our parents’ brand of tobacco, we looked optimistically toward our future.

What saved us — and future generations of American children — was not the fact that those studies on lead’s dangers in and to the environment finally came to light. No, we were saved because of the horrendous smog in virtually every major city in the country. Thankfully, the Clean Air Act of 1970 mandated that automakers finally do something to massively lower the amount of automotive emissions.

While Honda gave us the CVCC engine, the rest of the industry went with GM’s invention,the catalytic converter. And those very expensive units could not accept leaded fuel — it would burn the converters out almost immediately. So the nation grudgingly left behind our parents’ fuel, purchased new, cleaner vehicles, and still complained about having to buy unleaded gas. Even though we weren’t taking the lead out of the gasoline, we just weren’t putting it in anymore,unleaded gas actually cost more at the pump.

Further, newer cars were made with a much smaller tank filler hole, which wouldn’t accept the largeleaded fuel nozzles. Well, almost immediately a small business sprang up making and selling plastic adaptor tips;they fit the end of a leaded gasoline nozzleandenabled rebellious customers to pump leaded gasoline into their unleaded cars. Many people purchased those plastic tips to save a few bucks on fuel,while ruining their very expensive catalytic converters.

Others used tinsnips to widen the tank filler hole and then usedleaded gas. Those individuals would regret doing so when they went to trade in their vehicles, because no legitimate dealer would accept them knowing that their emissions equipmenthad been destroyed.

Leaded fuel was finally outlawed completely in 1986 and removed from the market. All testing on Americans’ blood since then has shown a dramatic drop in lead levels.

Next poison please

Next, because no one can leave well enough alone, the Clean Air Act of 1990 required an oxygenate to be put into the nation’s gasoline supplies. The concept was simple: add oxygen to the fuel and it would burn cleaner still. The problem was that technology was already on the roadthat made that foolishness redundant. For its Formula 1 race team, Honda had helped pioneer computer programming for vehicle engines. Soon cars would be able to adjust the fuel-air mixture instantaneously for the most perfect combustion. Suddenly all the college-educated politicians in Washington knew less about what was coming quickly in the auto industry than the average kid with a GED who had his Master Tech certificate and worked in a service department at any dealership in America.

That act brought us Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether, or MTBE. It’s worth asking how they managed to choose the one oxygenate additive that was worse for the environment than tetra ethyl lead. Then again, others argued that adding ethanol to the nation’s gasoline supply was the safer alternative. That difference pitted the farm lobby against the oil lobby in the battle for who would profit from the fuel additive mandated by a Clean Air Act that our automobiles’ computerization had already rendered unnecessary. In 1996, when the City of Santa Monica had to shut off its entire water supply because of MTBE contamination, ethanol finally won the battle for the additive no one needed in modern cars.

Fun Fact: New Jersey just settled another MTBE contamination lawsuit in the middle of March, this one for another $200 million. The state’s environmental department claims contamination of at least 6,000 different sites in that one state alone. Oh, and it was Jimmy Carter’s EPA that first approved MTBE for gasoline; by the time Bill Clinton’s EPA head, Carol Browner, was actively defending it, the EPA had long known of its potential to easily create major environmental problems.

It’s Not Good or Green

Today we’re fighting about how much ethanol you can put into gasoline without destroying the fuel systems and engines of most vehicles on the road today. Recently I saw my first E15 pump, meaning gasoline with 15 percent ethanol.The EPA claims cars 2001 and newer are fine using this much ethanol, butthat’s probably not true. A more accurate statement would be that if a car is 2001 or newer and meticulously maintained, it can probably handle that much ethanol.

But historical data tells us that the first owner of a new car tends to do the maintenance correctly, the second owner does far less scheduled maintenance, and the third owner does less still. So that advice is not reasonable at all. In fact, the Sandia Labs’ study on this issue involved so few vehicles, it’s stunning that anyone took the conclusions seriously.

Now the false promises. The original premise for using an oxygenate in our gasoline was to improve air quality. The big problem with that argument was that it’s untrue. Articles everywhere, from the LA Times to Scientific American in 2014,and my own work at BusinessWeekdiscuss why ethanol is not the green fuel it was touted as. Come to think of it, the EPA actually admitted that, back in 1995 —as a reason they were pushing MTBE on us.

Knowing that science isn’t crazy about the environmental impact of ethanol, we got a new clever but misleading claim to convince us of the wisdom of using it in our gasoline:“It stops us from having to purchase oil from countries we don’t like.”That was Madison Avenue gold during the height of the War on Terrorism, but again it wasn’t true at all. No, the advent of the modern era of shale drilling did the most to lower our need for imported oil; but even with all the success we’ve had in that area, we still import a lot of crude.

So:We don’t need any oxygenate in the nation’s fuel supply because our vehicles’ engines mix fuel optimally, thanks to computerization. Ethanol beat out MTBE only because the legal liabilities of using it had the nation’s oil companies crying uncle and willing to switch to ethanol. Which in turn is neither green, nor did it drastically reduce our need for oil, foreign or domestic. However, now that we’ve been sold a bill of goods for the fourth or fifth time about gasoline, let’s buyanother one.

The automakers want to take the nation to a single blend of gasoline with 95 octane. OK, that might make some sense. After all, that would align U.S. gasoline with what’s sold in Europe, theoretically making it easier to sell our excess gas overseas.But it doesn’t mean one can get rid of 87 octane regular gas, or 88 – 90 octane midgrade, because tens of millions of vehicles out there demand those fuels. But by all accounts, the auto industry and oil industry agree on this next mandated switch in fuels.

Unfortunately, the same elected officials who gave us MTBE, followed by ethanol and in amounts that most vehicles can’t tolerate, are the same ones listening intently to executives explain why the government needs to mandate this higher grade of fuel. Last week Dan Nicholson, vice president of global propulsion for GM, spoke before the House Energy and Commerce Committees’ environmental subcommittee to push for this new fuel. As the Automotive News reported Nicholson’s testimony, this would be “one of the most affordable ways to boost fuel economy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.” He then went on to say, “They [customers] can get around a 3 percent fuel economy improvement for less than [a] 3 percent [higher] cost.”

Here we go again. A man who graduated cum laudewith a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Kettering University, and by all accounts one of the world’s true geniuses in engine development, telling Congress a bunch of nonsense. Let’s play with his math for this higher octane fuel and see where it takes us.

We’ll start with the 3 percent improvement in fuel economy. Let’s say you have a fuel-efficient vehicle that delivers 30 miles per gallon highway. A 3 percent improvement in fuel efficiency is a mere .9 miles per gallon — but can you get that without spending over 3 percent more to use the higher octane fuel?

Again, as of last Friday AAA posted the average price of regular gasoline nationwide at $2.75 per gallon, with premium, or 94 octane, selling for $3.26. That’s a 51 cent-per-gallon difference in fuel prices. So it’s not“less than a 3 percent difference in cost,” it’s picking up less than 1 mile per gallon in efficiency in this case and paying 18.8 percent more for the higher octane fuel.

For the record, for over twenty years all car manufacturers have madehigh-compression engines that get their best mileage using the highest octane fuel. This situation already exists in the American marketplace;we already have that choice, so why create a costly government mandate?

What Nicholson meant to say is that it’s cheaper for GM to go this route to meet the future CAFE standards.And the oil companies would love having 16 – 17 million new customers each and every year who have to buy and pay an extra half buck for each gallon of gasoline.

Oh well, we’ve been dealing with ill thought out ideas for gasoline for the past 102 years. What’s another few decades,more or less?

© Ed Wallace 2018 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: edwallace570@gmail.com