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September 28, 2009

Supplier denies excess ethanol hurt police cars

The mystery of the paralyzed police cars remains. Yes, I realize this undercuts my speculation that a world awash in ethanol is prompting people to spike the gas supply with excess corn likker.

Contradicting statements by Baltimore officials, the supplier says gasoline blamed for crippling much of the city's police fleet last week did not contain excess amounts of ethanol. Norfolk, Va.-based IsoBunkers conducted its own tests and found the gas was 10 percent ethanol -- just what it was supposed to be, company President Charlie Joanedis told me on the phone.

"They obviously had a problem with a certain number of their vehicles, but we still don't know what caused the problem," Joanedis said. "We took a sample out of the tank at the filling station and sent it to a petroleum inspection company. Everything they tested was on spec."

A week ago more than 200 police cars had problems after being filled with IsoBunkers gas. As much as a third of Baltimore's fleet was briefly out of action. City officials tested the fuel and blamed ethanol, which is added by law to reduce pollution and is also the subject of a huge federal subsidy directed toward corn farmers and refiners.

IsoBunkers got the gas from a Baltimore marine terminal, where the ethanol was added as it went into the truck, Joanedis said. From there the truck went straight to the city service station, he said.

"We want to find the answer," he said, just like the city. "We didn't make the gas. If our supplier gave us bad gas I want to know about it and I want to go back to them for recourse."

Joanedis wondered why only police cars and not other city vehicles seemed to be affected. One theory, which he admitted was speculative: Perhaps the Chevies were unusually sensitive to normal seasonal changes in the gas formula that take place at the end of September.

Given IsoBunkers' results, the city will continue its inquiry, said Khalil Zaied, director of general services.

"We're not done yet," Zaied said. "If the outcome of their work came up agreeing with ours, we would probably stop investigating."

UPDATE: This is a response from Matt Hartwig at the Renewable Fuels Association. He responded to my original post last week. I meant to include it with this post & forgot. Matt sez:

This issue of improper blending by some petroleum marketers is serious and our industry does not support selling ethanol blends in excess of 10% unless they are properly labeled for use in flex fuel vehicles designed to use higher level ethanol blends. However, you seem to blame the fuel itself for finding its way into gasoline in higher than recommended levels rather than the people doing the blending.

When used properly, ethanol has proven a very effective fuel additive, and in the case of E85, a gasoline replacement. In fact, the entire Indy Car Series uses pure ethanol to fuel its race cars, as do some drivers in Brazil.

While we certainly have concerns about your mischaracterization of the environmental and energy securities values of ethanol, this is an issue on which we both can agree: ethanol, like all fuel additives, should be used within the bounds of the law.

Matt Hartwig

Director of Public Affairs

Renewable Fuels Association

Posted by Jay Hancock at 6:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Energy


I guess I have to wonder why a professional investigatory agency would jump to the conclusions that ethanol was the problem if it was not?

The driver could have had a substantial amount diesel or heating fuel from his/her previous load which may have been enough to throw the balance and quality of the fuel off enough to cause this problem. There is also a combination of other possibilities such as the tank being filled may have had high levels of water in it (bottom) and allowed to get below 25% of its fill capacity.When the truck makes the delivery this stirs up the water and mixes with the fuel causes problems.

How can a consumer tell if the Police Department can't? I filled up yesterday and a mile down the road my car started running very rough and the check engine light came on. Bad Gas? What can anybody do?

"City officials tested the fuel and blamed ethanol, which is added by law to reduce pollution and is also the subject of a huge federal subsidy directed toward corn farmers and refiners."

The subsidy is paid to OIL COMPANIES Jay. It is a shame that you look to farmers and domestic fuel producers as scapegoats for a larger underlying problem. I suppose you think the food you eat comes straight from the grocery store. If it wasn't for these farmers you would be out there scratching the ground and praying you had enough food for the winter. Wake up.

Check the truck that transported the fue; for previous use with deisel or some other substance.

Hi JD: The subsidy goes to the whole industry. It's paid to the oil companies, which gives them incentive to buy the ethanol. No subsidy, no ethanol business. I appreciate farmers very much. I do mind when the government gives them incentives to grow too much maize, which is bad for the environment, and which they sell to factories that use huge amounts of energy to produce it -- almost as much energy as the ethanol contains when they ship it out the door.

Bad Gas,

On each pump there should be a sticker showing who to contact in the Comptroller's Office Field Enforcement Division. On their site, they say you should call 410-260-7278.


Jay, keep it real. There are enough texties polluting the blogosphere with poor writing and U R 2 QL machinations. Crumbling as your paper may be, you are paid to prop it up as a bastion against total bastardization of the language.

Jay ,

Again you are wrong.

You get 3 times the energy going out as you do to produce ethanol.

There isn't ANY question from 99% of all Studies done that ethanol is net energy positive.

Also why is it you never discuss the Subsidies we pay for Oil? We wouldn't have spent nearly a trillion (700+Billion to date) in Iraq the past 8 years if it wasn't for Oil . Let alone the trillions we have spent the past 50 years in that area...again all because of oil.

What about the blood subsidies of our family and friends that are killed and wounded everyday that we give the Oil Companies to protect their interest ?

Corn ethanol is mandated to 15 billion gallons, after that the next 21 billion gallons in the Renewable fuels mandate must be of cellulosic feedstock.

Corn all along has just been the bridge to get us to next gen ethanol like Algenaol

They are getting 2000 Gallons of ethanol per acre compared to 400 for corn. Algenol believe they can get up-to 10,000 gallons per acre !

Which as they say..

"he Algenol ADVANTAGES are many. The DIRECT TO ETHANOL™ process uses both a proprietary algae and proprietary collection methods to produce cost effective ethanol that:

1. Does NOT require food based feedstocks like corn or sugarcane.

2. Does NOT require harvesting.

3. Does NOT require fossil fuel based fertilizers.

4. Does NOT require fresh water.

5. Does NOT require large amounts of fossil fuel.

6. Does NOT require arable land.

7. Does use desert land and marginal land.

8. Does make fresh water from seawater during the process.

9. Does have an energy balance over 8 : 1 (energy output : fossil fuel input)." that GM is invested in can make ethanol out of just about anything including wood waste chips ,industrial waste and old tires !.

Back to your Article.. your headline

"Supplier denies excess ethanol hurt police cars"

You need to man up and just admit you were wrong..

Your Headline Should have Read.

"Ethanol Not to Blame ...."

Time to get off your subsidy bandwagon and look at the big picture Jay. The blenders credit which goes to the oil company to blend the ethanol is about 50 cents a gallon. So in an E10 blend that amounts to 5 cents a gallon. My higher octane (89) ethanol blend is 10 cents a gallon cheaper than regular gasoline. In 2007 the cost of the subsidy was 3.7 billion. The reduction in farm subsidy to the corn producer was 8 billion. The corn producer doesn't want a subsidy, they just want a market to sell their product. There is going to be an excess of about 2 billion bushels of corn this year, so don't give me the crap about ethanol creating food shortages. The American agriculture sector is very capable of producing enough corn for food and fuel with no additional acres. The taxes paid by the industry in 2007 was over 8 billion dollars and the 7% of the fuel supply that ethanol provided kept fuel prices lower saving the consumer about 40 billion. I would say that 3.5 billion was a pretty good investment. Why are you so against something that has created jobs in a time where unemployment is soaring. Maybe we should just send those folks employed in the industry their unemployment checks and take 7% of the available fuel off the market. I am tired of the uninformed media regurgitating the big oil propaganda. Or are they just lining your pockets to spread their story?

I thought a writers job is to report the facts. Just another example of the slanderous bashing ethanol takes. What have you done to help our society become dependant from foreign oil?

Jay, I realize it is popular in the media world to bash ethanol, but a true journalist goes against the flow much of the time to find what the actual facts are. Government Fleet reports that it was DIESEL in the gasoline that caused the problems. Even corn ethanol is energy positive-up to 2.2 units for each unit expended.

Petroleum fuel is subsidized FAR more than biofuels, when one adds up the tax breaks, research grants, and military protection of oil sources and shipping lanes--adding up to $100's of billions ANNUALLY. The GAO found that the smaller ethanol subsidies actually get paid back to local and federal governments through expanded tax revenues (more jobs, more taxes). Merrill Lynch found that fuel prices are 15% lower than they would be due to the addition of ethanol in the fuel supply (20 cents per gallon savings here today).

Of the corn that goes to the ethanol plant, only 1/3 of it becomes ethanol; the rest is valuable coproducts including high protein value distillers grains (livestock feed)-it does not disappear as many in the media report.

As Dan points out, there are additional sources of ethanol coming online as well that have even more improved properties.

In chronological order:

From an article dated 9/22:,0,7240327.story

"..Tests were being conducted at a Towson lab to determine the precise problem, but officials say they were looking into whether the gas station's unleaded tank might have been filled with diesel fuel.."

The lab results arrived the next day as confirmed in an article dated 9/23:,0,1002895.story

"..Officials had expressed concern that the unleaded gasoline might have been mistakenly refilled with diesel, but results from a lab in Towson showed that ethanol was the apparent culprit.."

Next up, in an article dated 9/28:

The President of the company (Charlie Joanedis) that supplied the gasoline told Jay Hancock that he had a sample of the fuel in question sent to

"..a petroleum inspection company ..the gas was 10 percent ethanol -- just what it was supposed to be.."

To recap, on 9/23 a lab test (submitted by the city) found ethanol to be the problem and on 9/28 test results (submitted by the fuel supplier) found everything was hunky-dory--nothing wrong with the fuel at all and neither report made any mention of biodiesel contamination. If you had to bet your first born on it, which test result would you believe?

Now things start to really get confusing. In an article dated 9/30:

Blogger, Jay Hancock gets confused, sending us back to the original 9/22 article when diesel was first suspected (but rejected the next day after the lab results came back) thinking it was a newer article blaming diesel again. It appears that Hancock failed to check the date on the article, which was 9/22. Sigh.

It gets worse. The NYT blog Green Inc. followed suit in an article dated 9/30, also linking back to the original 9/22 article, apparently also mistaking it for a new article:

Word of advice to my fellow bloggers. Always check the dates on articles and it never hurts to read more than just the headline while you are there.

And while we are revisiting this let's look into some of these theories offered by the President of the company that sold the fuel to the city. From this link dated 9/28:

"..Joanedis [president of the fuel company] wondered why only police cars and not other city vehicles seemed to be affected …"

Nice effort but according to the original article dated 9/22, they were not the only vehicles affected:,0,7240327.story

"..Jeremy Ark, who said he is the fleet manager for a Maryland Transit Administration contractor that provides services for the disabled, said he had 17 buses break down beginning Friday afternoon .."

He then offers up another hypothesis:

"..Perhaps the Chevies were unusually sensitive to normal seasonal changes in the gas formula that take place at the end of September.."

Perhaps ….but if "Chevies" are unusually sensitive to normal seasonal changes in the gas formula that take place at the end of September, then why are the roadsides all across the country not littered with stalled Chevies (not to mention that Sept 21 is not the end of September)?

The bottom line is this. Every car make and model is different and will be impacted differently by ethanol blends. This is especially true for older cars. The impacts may be immediate (like lower mileage, rough running, stalling) or long term (slow degradation of seals and corrosion of metal by water absorbed by ethanol). That, in a nutshell, is why we invented the flex fuel car, which is still only good up to 85% ethanol.

Unlike American cars, cars in Brazil where ethanol blends have been 22% since 1993 are all designed to run on that higher blend. According to Wikipedia:

"..All Brazilian automakers have adapted their gasoline engines to run smoothly with these range of mixtures, thus, all gasoline vehicles are built to run with blends from E20 to E25, defined by local law as "Common gasoline type C". Some vehicles might work properly with lower concentrations of ethanol, however, with a few exceptions, they are unable to run smoothly with pure gasoline which causes engine knocking, as vehicles traveling to neighboring South American countries have demonstrated.."

SacramentoE85, as his moniker implies, is a corn ethanol missionary. Everything he said in the above comment has been repeatedly debunked in other comment fields but he returns again and again to repeat the same things. Go here to see his points debunked in detail, one, by one:

Russ Finley, as his moniker does not imply, is, nonetheless, an ani-ethanol troll who roams the Web looking for ethanol stories and then posts links to a bunch of graphs and "facts" that he, himself, put together.

Lets put this food and fuel in perspective. Two arces of farm ground, national average is 165 bushels per acre. That over 900 gallons from 2 acres and 5500 pounds of protein. That protein has more value to livestock then one acre of corn. Big picture, over 900 gallons of ethanol per acre of corn. Ask yourself, why is livestock production going up in Iowa, Duh. Now lets take some of that protein to food grade and drop a few pound in the waist line.

Also, one area that needs to be address is the market for ethanol and lets raise its value by promoting more efficient engines. Saab did it two years ago and funny thing is, it's not marketed here in the US. Oh, I forgot, now our goverment owns GM and they sold Saab.

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About Jay Hancock
Jay Hancock has been a financial columnist for The Baltimore Sun since 2001. He has also been The Baltimore Sun's diplomatic correspondent in Washington and its chief economics writer. Before moving to Baltimore in 1994 he worked for The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk and The Daily Press of Newport News.

His columns appear Tuesdays and Sundays.

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