CITY HALL — A City Council committee moved Monday to make gasoline with higher ethanol content more available to Chicago drivers.
The Finance Committee voted 11-5 to compel the city's busiest service stations to carry E15, or gasoline that's 15 percent ethanol, compared with the current standard of 10 percent.
The vote came over strong opposition from the petroleum industry and local service-station owners.
Yet in the end it survived what Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) labeled "scare tactics" and the attitude that "the boogeyman is coming."
The amended ordinance calls on city service stations delivering more than 850,000 gallons a year to offer E15 at a minimum of one pump. That's an estimated 110 stations, or about a quarter of all those in the city. It gives stations almost a year to comply.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th), committee chairman, said the ethanol industry and the American Lung Association have ponied up $11 million, in part through a program called Prime the Pump, to help stations make the conversion, which some have said could cost upward of $100,000 in some instances.
"This is a big burden," said station owner Russ Garcia of Garcia Enterprises. "It's gonna cause confusion at the pump."
Raleigh Kean Jr., owner of the Kean Brothers stations in Chicago, said it could be "the final bullet that takes us out" with their station in the Beverly-Morgan Park area, after they competed with nearby suburban and Indiana stations for years despite higher city gas and cigarette taxes.
"I don't think the market demands it right now," Kean said. "I think you would see plenty of Chicago gas stations board up."
Opponents pointed out again and again that only an estimated 7 percent of cars on the road have been authorized by the manufacturer to accept E15, and that its use could nullify warranties.
They also pointed out that motorcycles, boats and lawn appliances do not accept E15, as it tends to burn hot and overheat the engines.
Yet Tom Buis, chief executive officer of Growth Energy, an ethanol company, maintained E15 is cleaner, cheaper and home grown and that "the ordinance is about choice," giving drivers the option to buy that fuel, which basically exchanges 5 percent of ethanol for gasoline.
"This fight is about market share, plain and simple," Buis said. "The oil industry has been dead set to block renewable fuels."
Others cited how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said 80 percent of U.S. cars could use E15.
Burke pointed to how Wesley Clark, a retired U.S. general, has said it's an issue of national security and reducing dependence on foreign oil, as ethanol is made from U.S.-grown corn.
"We have to start weaning ourselves off this oil from the Middle East," said Ald. James Balcer (11th). "This is something we need to do now."
Some aldermen were clearly confused by the complex issue.
"I feel like this is the battle of the snake-oil vendors," said Ald. Rey Colon (35th).
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) questioned "the rush we appear to be in here," accusing his council colleagues of "a little too much trailblazing on policy issues."
Yet Burke cited how the committee first addressed the issue in July, adding, "That doesn't sound like a rush to me."
In the end, it passed 11-5, with Reilly, Colon and Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd), Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Emma Mitts (37th) voting against.
It now heads to the City Council on Wednesday, with Burke saying he was content to put it to a vote of the full body.
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