August 23, 2010

NORRIDGEWOCK: Airport low on fuel

Supply of nonethanol product drying up, putting Central Maine airport in a tight spot

NORRIDGEWOCK -- Business for the Central Maine Airport could drop once nonethanol fuel disappears from the state.

click image to enlarge

FUEL CONCERNS: Pilot Judy Mosher flies this 150 Cessna aircraft and fills it with gas that has an octane rating of 87. That fuel will no longer be available in about a month.

Staff photo by Erin Rhoda

In about a month, nonethanol fuel -- which is widely used in small engine planes, as well as lawn mowers, boats, snowmobiles, snow-blowers and antique cars -- will not be available in Maine.

There will be two main alternatives. For aircraft it will be a more expensive, low-lead gasoline. For other engines, it will be fuel that contains a percentage of ethanol.

The options have either monetary or performance drawbacks, according to people who rely on the less-expensive, nonethanol fuel, and could spell trouble for businesses selling the fuel, such as the Central Maine Airport.

"My phone's ringing off the hook: 'What are we going to do? What are we going to do?' I don't have an answer for anybody," airport operator Kristina Wallace said.

She is certain of one thing, however: "Our airport runs on our fuel sales."

Judy Mosher of Fairfield is a guide who flies a 150 Cessna out of the airport. She fills the 1968 plane with gas that has an octane rating of 87.

However, due to a combination of federal regulatory requirements, tax incentives and market forces, fuel refiners and distributors are discovering it is no longer economical to supply that fuel.

Mosher said that with no 87 gasoline, she will be forced to purchase 100 low-lead aviation fuel, which is about $1 more per gallon. She will "definitely" not fly as often, she said.

Mike Willey of Oakland, a pilot and member of the airport advisory committee, added that the 100 low-lead fuel can be detrimental to planes that are not designed for it. The lead "fouls spark plugs and causes stuffed valves," he said, requiring more maintenance.

The fuel distributor for the airport, Winston Judd, general manager of D & C Transportation in Vermont, estimates he can provide the nonethanol fuel for about a month and a half longer.

"I'm going to supply them as long as I possibly can, and when it's done, it's done," he said.

Judd gets the nonethanol fuel from Ultramar, a subsidiary of Valero Energy Corporation, which owns and operates a refinery near Quebec City.

Louis Forget, vice president of public and government affairs for Ultramar, said the company replaced conventional nonethanol gasoline with a fuel that contains 10 percent ethanol, called E10, effective July 1. Ethanol is largely derived from corn.

The company was one of the last to make the change, he said, "in order to respond to U.S. demand."

"The U.S. industry has made the change to ethanol gas for a number of reasons: cleaner burning, less dependence on foreign supply, and it's more economical," he said.

E10, however, is not approved for any aircraft, said Parker Tyler, a member of the airport's advisory committee. Why? Because it causes engine failure.

But it's still used in other engines, such as those for lawn equipment, boats, chainsaws and snowmobiles, and it's causing problems.

E10 is a "powerful solvent that can damage engines and fuel systems, break down fiberglass fuel tanks and rapidly absorb water from the atmosphere, causing engine failure," according to the office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

It has been a particular problem for boaters, causing some boats to stall. Repairs are expensive, according to the office. Converting to aluminum fuel lines is also expensive.

But what can be done to introduce the nonethanol fuel back into Maine's market?, asked Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland.

Judd, the distributor, had an answer: "The only thing they can do is scream and holler at their congressman. If anyone's going to do anything about it, it's going to be the federal government."

(Continued on page 2)

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