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Gas prices affecting area gas stations

James Reda Jr. & Richard D. L. Fulton

(5/5) With gas stations showing more threes than twos in their prices, drivers are angrier with the people making the least from the gas.

"Everybody's yelling at us," said Joe Feeser, manager of Thurmont Liberty.

Larry Holtzople with the Holtzople Gas Station in Emmitsburg said the angry reactions he has to deal with regularly are pushing him toward getting out of the business.

"It's one of the reasons we will probably go out of business," Holtzople said. "People are nastier. I understand they need a place to vent, but we don't need this aggravation. It's no fun anymore. It used to be fun helping people."

Besides rudeness, the increasing prices have led to a great chance of drivers leaving without paying for their gas.

"Everybody is pre-paying now," said Lisa Wood, manager of the E Z Fill Getty in Emmitsburg. "More people are upset with that than the price."

Craig McLeaf, owner of Mountain Gate Convenience Store, has resisting requiring pre-paying because he said it has been shown to reduce sales volume. He chooses instead to make sure that everyone's license plate number is written down.

The quick-changing prices have also caught retailers on the wrong side of the increase.

"Sometimes we wind up selling gas for less than we pay for it," Feeser said. He said this actually happened at his station over the Easter weekend.

McLeaf pointed out that credit card companies take a percentage of charged sales, which cuts into the amount of retailer profit even more than the reduced amount it already is.

"The credit card companies are making more money, but the higher gas prices go, the less we make," McLeaf said. "There is not a lot of money to be made in gas."

Many stations supplement their revenues by running convenience stores and car washes.

"It's hard to make it on just gas," said Bernard Sweeney, manager of Direct to You in Thurmont. "It's hard. I don't have all that other stuff to sell."

The switch to gasoline containing ethanol has also eaten into retailer's profits. Sweeney said it cost him $700 each to clean the fuel tanks before the switch. Wood said she had to purchase three filters per pump at $15 a filter for the new formulation.

"The ethanol is costing more money, about 10 cents a gallon more," Sweeney said.

Holtzople said the ethanol gas was supposed to be cheaper to buy, but that wasn't the case with his first purchase.

At this point, no one knows where the price increase will end - only that the retailers will likely be blamed for it.

It's not just gasoline - it's ethanol

The "out of gas" signs on local gas station pumps are not the result of over-demand for cheap, regular gas during the ongoing price escalation.

Instead, storage tanks are being allowed to run dry and will be cleaned thoroughly in preparation for the introduction of a new gasoline blend containing ten percent ethanol, with Getty apparently leading the way. Ethanol is an alternative fuel produced by fermenting and distilling crops like corn, barley, and wheat.

The Frederick area must meet certain federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criteria "to use a fuel that meets a certain air quality standard," Lauren Robbins, Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) transportation program manager told The Dispatch.

The EPA criteria mandate that certain areas have to supply reformulated gasoline (RFG) as part of conforming to clean air act mandates. RFG is gasoline blended to "burn cleaner and reduce smog-forming and toxic pollutants," according to the EPA.

The petroleum industry has options for what can be blended with the gasoline to make it RFG compliant. Until recently, the industry used an ingredient called methyl tertiary - butyl ether (MTBE). But MTBE has raised concerns over groundwater contamination, and has even been added to the EPA's "Contaminant Candidate List" for further impact evaluation.

"We have been using MTBE and what people have found is that they can leak into the groundwater and give the water a bad taste," Robbins said. EPA is also looking into possible health effects of such contamination.

A number of states have already banned the use of MTBE. In Maryland, "Western Maryland switched over earlier this year," the MEA program manager stated.

Because of potential liability issues with using MTBE, the petroleum industry has been gravitating on its own toward substituting ethanol, according to Robbins. Ethanol is considered a safer option.

"Possibly we will have a short term impact (price increase) because the supply of ethanol gasoline available at first may not meet the demand," Robbins noted.

A short supply is likely given an insufficient number of existing storage facilities to hold the ethanol, which cannot be sent pre-mixed with gasoline via traditional transmission lines.

"You can't ship ethanol through the pipelines we have here because it attracts water, so the ethanol must be shipped separately, then blended at the last minute. In some states it will be difficult to do the transmission because of lack of storage (until more storage capacity is created)," she said.

Maryland has storage capacity, Robbins said, "and will be in better shape during the summer."