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The bumpy road to blender pumps

FARGO, N.D. - I was listening to North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven's state-of-the-state address the other day, and I couldn't help but feel a strange "boom" mentality about ethanol. My mind flashed onto the "summit" on E85 (85 percent or thereabouts ...

FARGO, N.D. - I was listening to North Dakota Gov. John

Hoeven's state-of-the-state address the other day, and I couldn't help but feel a strange "boom" mentality about ethanol.

My mind flashed onto the "summit" on E85 (85 percent or thereabouts blend of ethanol to gasoline) fuel. In the summit, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., seemed to come to a realization that motorists might not want E85 at all. Short of being forced to buy E85, they might instead want an intermediate blend that gives them better gas mileage and travel range.

One of the questions at the summit was the role of "blender pumps," a topic that holds particular fascination to me.

These pumps have come into limited usage in northeast South Dakota, but have run into regulatory/legal questions. A few cooperatives had started using blender pumps early last year, but their gasoline supplier - Cenex Harvest States - raised questions about whether its affiliates were meeting Environmental Protection agency standards. CHS initially wanted the blender pumps shut down by Dec. 31.

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South Dakota weights and measures officials have a concern that likely will prove insignificant. They've wondered if a customer buys a particular blend through a blender pump that they might not actually get what they're buying because of residual amounts of another blend left in the hose mechanism. I think these blends will be diluted to the point where it's insignificant.

Meanwhile, blender pump owners have had mixed reaction to all of the concerns.

Gary French, general manager of Sioux Valley Cooperative in Watertown, S.D., says his board talks at every monthly meeting about whether to resume using the blender pump that the co-op ran from April to October last year. "I would think within the next couple of months, we'll make a decision one way or another," French says. "We feel it's the right thing to do," but that must be offset with the risk.

"We're still waiting to get some clarifications on some issues," French says. "Mainly, they deal with concerns of misfueling - using higher blends of ethanol in nonflex fuel vehicles."

Four Seasons Cooperative in Britton, S.D. - the first blender pump site - is sticking to its guns. The technology quadrupled the co-op's actual put-through of ethanol to consumers. "E30 is by far the highest seller," says Dave Andresen, general manager, noting its about 11 cents cheaper and was about 25 to 30 cents a gallon cheaper when gasoline prices hovered at the $3 per gallon level.

"We have not really been told otherwise," he says, regarding orders from CHS. "With the EPA, from what I'm understanding, we're not violating the Clean Air Act."

Kevin Jurgens, owner of Jurgens Oil Co. of Wilmot, S.D., is soon offering blends at a Jurgens Auto Body store in town. He'd be the first so-called "independent" doing this.

Doug Sombke of Condee, S.D., president of the South Dakota Farmers Union for the past 14 months, says his organization won't push blender pump legislation per se this year, but he is working to introduce at least a 10 percent renewable fuel standard for the state. There would be a "step-up" program that would go to a 30 percent renewable standard by 2012.

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There is some talk about cutting the tax on E85 from 11 cents a gallon to 8 cents, if the renewable goal isn't reached by 2012.

Sombke notes that South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, opposes a mandate, as do most Republicans except for Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.

Sombke has tried to lead by example.

Sombke used various blends of ethanol (20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent and 50 percent mixes of ethanol and E85) to power his 2004 Chevy Trailblazer, a nonflex fuel vehicle, and that the 30 percent blend seems most efficient. He sits on the Ferney Farmers Union Oil Co. co-op board, which still offers five ethanol blends - E10, E20, E30 and E85.

Personally, I think the question is what do motorists want?

This probably varies by engine type, but should be more scientific than anecdotes and trial-and-error deals by motorists.

Second, someone should figure out whether the goal of selling E85 still is compatible with the goal of putting out flex-fuel vehicles. If flex-fuel vehicle owners are rejecting E85, then the goals aren't as tied together as we once thought.

Maybe the real goal should be the blender pumps.

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