With the approach of Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff of the vacation driving season, most motorists are preoccupied with the cost of gasoline, up 23 percent since the start of the year and likely to climb further over the summer.
But another gasoline-related controversy is drawing in refiners, automakers and fuel experts -- the Environmental Protection Agency's minimum requirements for detergent additives.
The addition of small amounts of detergent to gasoline, a federal requirement since 1995, prevents carbon buildup that impairs engine efficiency and increases emissions, sometimes to the point where the car fails its emissions test.
Many in the industry told Scripps Howard News Service reporter Isaac Wolf that the EPA's minimum requirement is woefully low and obsolete, based on data gathered in the 1980s. Indeed, one of the tests EPA requires for approval of a new additive is that it be used for 10,000 miles in a 1985 BMW 318i with an automatic transmission.
Said Kenneth Corkwell, a manager with Lubrizol, a top maker of additives: "We don't make engines that look like that anymore. The technologies have changed."
Theoretically, the more detergent, the better the gasoline for modern engines. But because of EPA sticking with the old standard, additive levels vary all over the lot. Scripps Howard commissioned a lab to test 10 gasoline samples from five national brands: BP, CITGO, Exxon, Pilot and Shell.
The levels ranged from Shell's premium blend, with 31 milligrams of additives per 100 milliliters. to Pilot's regular unleaded, with 5.8 milligrams. Because of detergent supplier problems, Pilot decided to stick to EPA's required minimum standard.
The EPA refused to talk with Wolf for this story.
As recently as March, the major automakers told the EPA that its additive standard was outmoded. And back in 2004, with the EPA reluctant to act, several major automakers -- BMW, GM, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen and Audi -- formed a consortium to set up their own more stringent standard for additives. It's instituting more rigorous testing.
It's good the industry is acting. Motorists are far too worried about the cost of their gas to start fretting about its cleanliness.