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Petroleum industry fumes after being blamed for biofuel chaos

Chaos reigns at Germany's gas stations as drivers refuse to buy the new biofuel E10 for fear of ruining their engines. Meanwhile, government and industry are blaming each other for the fiasco of misinformation.

Gas nozzle

Tensions are high at Germany's gas stations

It's more than just teething troubles. The chaos surrounding the introduction of the new biofuel E10 to replace conventional Super Plus has resulted in fear and suspicion on Germany's roads.

Many drivers prefer the old gas, even though it costs up to eight euro cents (11 US cents) more per liter, for fear that E10, with its high ethanol content, will damage their engines.

E10 is safe for 93 percent of all cars registered in Germany and 99 percent of all German-made cars. But that has apparently done little to reassure drivers, 70 percent of whom are sticking to what they know.

Apart from concerns over the 10 percent ethanol, E10 is also less efficient, somewhat negating the price advantage.

The Association of the German Petroleum Industry (MWV) supposedly announced that E10 would not be delivered to any further gas stations, meaning that around half of Germany's 15,000 service stations would not supply the new fuel. The association, however, denied having made such an annoucement, only adding to the general confusion.

Blame game

Germany's Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen heavily criticized the fuel industry for not properly advertising E10 at gas stations. "The confusion that the petroleum industry has created is unacceptable," he fumed.

Klaus Picard, head of the MWV

Picard angrily defended the industry's handling of the introduction of E10

The German automobile association ADAC has thrown its support behind the minister. “The petroleum industry alone is responsible for the chaos that followed the introduction of E10,” said ADAC spokesman Maxi Hartung. “For there to be absolutely no information available on a newly-introduced product is the wrong approach.”

The introduction of the new fuel mix follows an EU directive that says the percentage of biofuel in petroleum must be raised to lessen Europe's oil dependency. The German Environment Ministry is now implementing the plan and industry is struggling to comply.

"The law says that the consumer must use E10 as of now," said MWV head Klaus Picard. "That's why we're doing everything we can to achieve that."

MWV has reacted strongly to the suggestion that the industry is dragging its heels. "The petroleum industry is doing all it can to hit the government's biofuel targets," the association said in a statement said. "This brings a lot of effort and cost with it. We are taking the task of educating drivers very seriously, but at the end of the day, the information about the compatibility of vehicles to the new fuel can only be offered by car manufacturers."

Other measures, more pressures

The statement then continued with a list of MWV efforts to inform the public, including flyers, signs and hotlines - and some excuses. "The production capacity of the refineries and the number of fuel storage tanks at the refineries, the depots and especially the gas stations are generally limited," it said. "The operators are being asked to execute the directive with the existing production plants within the existing infrastructure."

Man refueling at a gas station

German drivers have to find out whether their car is compatible soon

MWV believes that the refineries are being put under huge government pressure to implement the directive. "Under normal circumstances, we would stop and withdraw a product that is experiencing such huge aversion from customers," Picard said. "But you have to be clear: This is not a normal market but a massive interference from the state."

The surplus of E10 and the shortage of Super Plus have created economic problems that can't easily be resolved. Many refineries in Germany have now switched their production to E10, which can only be sold in the domestic market, since other countries use other chemical compositions in their fuel.

But ADAC is not forgiving, particularly since it believes that some 3 million car drivers can't use the new biofuel and are thus forced to buy the more expensive conventional fuel. "ADAC is therefore calling on the petroleum companies to offer an affordable Super fuel E5 as an alternative," it said in a statement, which also called for the Super E5 to be imported from neighboring countries like France.

Do it the French way

So far, France is the only other European Union country to have introduced E10, and it appears to have phased in the biofuel with relatively little friction.

France introduced E10 in April 2009, its third biofuel. In addition, the French government publishes a list of biofuel-compatible car models, which it regularly updates.

Other countries, by comparison, are rolling out the new fuel more slowly. Britain, for example, will introduce E4 (with only 4 percent ethanol) in April, followed by E5 at the end of the year. And it remains to be seen when and if the country will introduce E10.

German drivers, it appears, will have to get used to E10 more quickly. "We know that customers generally refuel once every two weeks," Picard said. "So we have to do everything we can to make sure they've called their manufacturers and asked whether their car is E10-compatible by the next refuelling wave."

Author: Ben Knight
Edit: John Blau

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