Federal officials gave the OK for the Valley to use conventional gasoline for a limited time Wednesday, but area stations didn’t immediately take advantage of the waiver.
State officials sought a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency waiver of rules requiring a summer gas blend that helps curtail ozone pollution in the Valley. The agency quickly responded. The state cited the need during the current crunch to tap the conventional supply used in other areas of the state, which are not designated as pollution nonattainment areas by the EPA.
Normally, gas stations and oil companies can face serious state and federal fines for failing to use a cleaner-burning blend intended to reduce Valley air pollution.
Most stations waited for written promises the law would be waived for 30 days so they could buy conventional gasoline, said Andrea Martincic, executive director of the Arizona Petroleum Marketers Association.
“I was hopeful the waiver to allow conventional would help things, and I do believe it can help things,” Martincic said.
John P. Suarez, assistant administrator of enforcement for the EPA, sent the state a letter Wednesday morning promising not to enforce the use of gasoline specifically blended for Maricopa County until Sept. 19. The Arizona Department of Weights and Measures followed with a separate letter that was being sent to gas station owners.
Arizona law requires vehicle gasoline sold in the Valley during the summer to use methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, to increase oxygen in the fuel and reduce the amount of ground-based ozone created as it is burned. The special blend must be created in refineries in California and Texas and sent by pipeline or tanker truck to the Valley. In the winter, Valley stations switch to another blend using ethanol intended to reduce the amount of carbon monoxide being released.
The rest of the state can use conventional fuels.
Gov. Janet Napolitano sought the EPA’s cooperation so gas stations would have more options to refill pumps that went dry across the Valley last weekend.
Some gas industry experts said temporarily lifting the requirement could fuel additional price increases in other parts of the state.
Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, has a business that owns gas stations and delivers fuels across northern Arizona. Bennett said he’s concerned that waiving the Phoenix blend requirement will prompt Valley gas stations to buy up fuel that now goes to other parts of the state.
“If you suck product away to other areas, you’re going to drive the price up there,” Bennett said.
But AAA spokeswoman Kim Pappas-Miller said it will be hard for stations outside the Valley to justify higher costs when they have already raised pump prices by an average of 7 cents in response to the Valley situation.
“Why would it make it harder for gas stations to get when there’s more coming, and it’s a cheaper blend and it’s easier to get?” Pappas-Miller said.
When the unblended fuel does arrive at gas pumps, it shouldn’t cause any vehicles to fail the required air emissions test, said Patrick Gibbons, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
Failure rates for older cars have not changed when different fuel mixtures are used, he said.
“It doesn’t not test the fuel. It tests the vehicle,” Gibbons said.
Steve Owens, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said concerns about using unblended fuel in August had to be weighed against the pollution impact of the gas shortage.
“In the last several days, we’ve had a large number of vehicles sitting in long lines idling, releasing far greater amounts of air pollution than they normally would,” Owens said.
- Tribune writer Mark Flatten contributed to this story.