CITY HALL — A move to require service stations to carry so-called E15 fuel, gasoline that's 15 percent ethanol, ran out of gas Monday.
The Finance Committee took no action on the proposed ordinance, after the two sides battled back and forth through the afternoon until only a handful of aldermen were left in the Council Chamber.
Former U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, now board chairman for Growth Energy, which represents "producers and supporters of ethanol," called E15 "good for the economy, it's good for the environment, and it's good for national security."
According to Clark, E15 would replace mid-range 89 octane gas on most pumps and would sell for 5 to 15 cents less a gallon than regular 87 octane gas. He predicted suburban motorists would actually drive into the city to buy gas, reversing the current trend in which city taxes make gas less expensive in the suburbs.
"This will be an opportunity to capture some of those dollars," said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), adding that his Pullman neighborhood on the southern edge of the city was losing gas sales to southern suburbs.
Ethanol proponents say it burns cleaner than gasoline, is cheaper to produce as it's made from corn, and its use as an additive reduces U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Clark estimated the transition would cost most service stations less than $1,000. A city ordinance calling for gas stations to carry E15, sponsored by Beale and Ald. Edward Burke (14th), would exempt small, independent stations selling less than 500,000 gallons a year, and those whose underground storage tanks are not compatible with E15.
Burke said there are 404 gas stations in the city, but could not say how many would be exempt.
Yet Tanya Triche, spokeswoman for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said the transition would be "a major undertaking" and estimated the cost at $8,000 to more than $100,000 a station.
"Gas-station owners are concerned," Triche added, and asked the City Council to "refrain" from passing the ordinance.
The Illinois Corn Growers Association and the American Lung Association are offering grants to offset any transition costs in stations making the change.
"For the motorist, this is the common-sense solution," Clark said.
Yet Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) said that, if it makes so much sense in price and demand, they should let the free market operate and not make it compulsory.
"We're forcing people to do this," Sposato said. "Why do we want to force people?"
Clark offered no direct evidence, but said that, anecdotally, gas-station owners have "been threatened they'd be cut off" by gasoline suppliers.
"Big oil is fighting this tooth and nail," Burke said.
"It's easy to demonize the oil companies," said Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th). "We've been doing it in this country for a long time, sometimes deservedly so." Yet he questioned the lack of any real evidence of threats being made.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) likewise urged a free market and expressed doubts about creating a "mandate" to demand the sale of E15.
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) was skeptical that increased ethanol production wouldn't lead to increased food prices with a reduced supply of corn.
"It's a very small portion of the acreage that goes for human consumption," said Gary Hudson, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. He said generally one-third went to livestock, one-third to ethanol and one-third to exports.
"It's about market share," said Tom Buis, chief executive officer of Growth Energy. He said major oil companies were concerned about losing 5 percent more of their product to ethanol.
Opposition also came from bikers and boaters, as E15 is not recommended for motorcycles and motorboats and can cause engine damage. The American Motorcyclist Association formally opposed the legislation, as did the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
"E15 burns hot," said Todd Vandermyde, a National Rifle Association spokesman who spoke in this case on behalf of the state's 300,000 bikers. He said a motorcycle stuck in traffic running on E15 would be in danger of engine damage.
Clark, however, insisted it was safe for use in all cars made since 2001 and would be a good choice for 80 percent of cars on the road.
Opponents countered that, saying E15 had been formally approved for only 5 percent of cars, and its use might violate car warranties.
A coalition of groups including the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Chicago Automobile Trade Association and AAA opposed the ordinance and pushed for E15 sales to be suspended.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers warned of "widespread confusion among consumers," and Bill Fleishli, vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association, said he was concerned with "liability" for gas-station owners if cars developed trouble using E15 over time.
"We're heading in the wrong direction," Fleishli said. "We're putting the cart before the horse."
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