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Pure gasoline still top product at Jette Store

POLSON — “Real gasoline. No ethanol.” Proudly displayed on the reader board outside Jeff Schumaker’s Conoco station, known locally as the Jette Store, that slogan raises many questions about what motorists are putting in their fuel tanks these days.

And according to Schumaker, who opened the Jette Store nine years ago, the answers aren’t good when ethanol is involved. In fact, he believes they’re bad enough to warrant him taking a stand as the only gas station in Lake County to avoid ethanol-blended fuel entirely. 

Over the last decade, ethanol — a grain alcohol most commonly produced from corn when manufactured in the U.S. — has been touted by (some) environmentalists and politicians as one of the alternative fuels that could save the country from dependence on foreign oil and perhaps the world from global warming. Ethanol became an even hotter topic during campaigning for the last presidential election, and last week, President Obama announced his administration’s plans to boost the use of biofuels, including corn-based ethanol, as part of a “comprehensive strategy to enhance American energy independence while building a foundation for a new clean energy economy,” according to a Feb. 3 EPA news release. His announcement came in conjunction with the finalization of an EPA ruling on renewable fuel production mandated by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. The ruling calls for the nation to reach an annual production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels — including ethanol derived from corn — by 2022, triple what was produced last year.

“The Environmental Protection Agency said new data showed that, even after taking into account increased fertilizer and land use, corn-based ethanol can yield significant climate benefits by displacing conventional gasoline or diesel fuel,” staff writer Steven Mufson explained in a Feb. 4 Washington Post news article.

So what’s the problem? 

Ethanol opponents have a long list of them, from doubt over how clean-burning the fuel actually is, to its role in driving up food prices to the inefficiency of producing it. In Time magazine’s March 2008 cover story titled “The Clean Energy Scam,” writer Michael Grunwald argues that ethanol is not the solution to the world’s energy crisis but rather is “part of the problem.” He provides in-depth examples to show that ethanol is disastrous for the environment; it raises food prices; its production actually causes a net gain of carbon dioxide in the air; and making ethanol from corn is far less efficient than producing it from sugar cane, as Brazil does. 

“The grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year,” Grunwald writes.

He’s far from alone in his scathing assessment of ethanol’s potential as a viable clean energy source. Earlier in 2008, the journal Science published a report on a study, led by Princeton University researcher Timothy Searchinger, showing that corn-based ethanol “nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.” An MSNBC consumer news report from Aug. 2008 claims ethanol is damaging to small two-cycle engines like lawnmowers, chain saws and outboard boat motors, because it eats away at rubber gaskets and leaves behind a “gummy residue … that clogs filters and hoses.”

Ethanol also doesn’t go well with water, which is one of Schumaker’s main reasons for not carrying the product. If even a tiny amount of moisture got into his giant underground fuel tank, the ethanol would separate from the gasoline, ruining the fuel, he said.

“I’m just a mom and dad store, and if I lost 10,000 gallons (of gasoline) to phase separation, it’d kill me. So that’s why I carry regular old fuel.”

Other local gas stations, like Mountain View Cenex in St. Ignatius, have been selling ethanol since it was first introduced as a gasoline blend.

“We’ve sold it for two years, and we haven’t had any complaints,” manager Darren Orr said. “It helps to keep the prices down.”

And Schumaker said he hasn’t heard of any local stores experiencing problems with phase separation.

“All the guys in (Polson) are doing it, and apparently they’ve had no problem,” he said. “But I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

While he pays extra in freight costs to have ethanol-free gasoline shipped from Helena or sometimes from as far away as Washington, Schumaker said his loyal local customer base keeps him afloat. Boaters, especially, flock to the Jette Store when they need to fill up. 

“You can’t use (ethanol) near water … so I’m getting a lot of boaters up here,” he said. “There’s a lot of people catching on.”

Montana is one of 24 states without an ethanol refinery, and Schumaker hopes it stays that way. By law, the state must produce at least 40 million gallons of denatured ethanol before fuel retailers will be required to sell gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol. 

“If we had (a refinery), I would be obligated by law to sell ethanol,” Schumaker said.

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