Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Truth about Gasoline

I learned these things from my time representing oil companies (I did for a couple of years, ashamed I am to say). It was interesting to learn about gasoline patents and the chemistry and sales issues. All of this is public information, at least insofar as it is not protected by any attorney-client privilege.

1. Gasoline is stored in big tanks near refineries. You can see them everywhere, shaped like macaroons or hamburgers. They are wide, cylindrical, and usually about twice as wide as tall. Now, how do you get gasoline out of them? You can't just scoop it out of the top, because the top is actually floating. Why floating? If it didn't float, there would be a gap between gas and top of tank that would be filled with flammable vapors. Gas is taken out of a tap in the bottom. Well, not quite the bottom, obviously. Near the bottom, like the tap on a nice cooler chest. About 5-10 feet of gasoline are in the bottom and never really emptied until it comes time to clean the tank and you have to suck it all out. Let's just say it's not the cream of the crop at this point. I understand that is what ARCO buys (cheap) and it sells that dirty crap to customers (mixing it with other stuff). So that's why ARCO is cheap (in CA at least) and why it's a bad idea for your car to buy it (p.s. bar watchdogs: this is not confidential attorney-client information, but overheard at a big dinner from Chevron execs who were trashing their ARCO colleagues -whom they despised- a few seats down).

2. I also learned that premium gasoline is a byproduct of producing regular gasoline, which would otherwise have to be thrown out. Here in CA, they have 87, 89, and 91 or 92 octane gas. They market each "grade" always about 10cents higher than the one below. They all do this together, and there is no competition - the prices of different grades move together, not independently based on demand. The prices always move together. It does not cost more to make the higher octane - it is a necessary by product. When you "crack" the fuel it is exactly like distilling whisky. In whisky, the master distiller discards the first 10% of the distillate and the last 10%, known as the "feints" which are not desired because they consist of compounds that boil at lower and higher temperatures, respectively, than the desired main run. In other words, as you heat it up, the first stuff to boil is crap and the last stuff is crap.

3. No cars need more than 87 octane. It's especially funny that people with big expensive luxury cars think they need "better" gasoline. That's all a sales gimmick. I was told that only the worst OLDER engines "need" higher fuel. The top of the line luxury cars can do fine on 85 or worse. Better engines can do more with less, which makes sense. The problem is that oil companies have to sell this byproduct or dump it. Higher octane gas isn't cleaner burning, by the way - in fact, the lower octane gas is specially formulated to release less of the "greenhouse" gases. The remainder of the distillate becomes plastic or is tossed.

4. Oil runs the gamut from light sweet crude (Alaska) to thick heavy stuff. These different varieties crack (distill) at different temperatures in different amounts. So, for example, the T50 of light sweet crude (the temperature at which 50% of it boils) is different than the T50 of heavy crude. Refineries are fine tuned to take shipments of certain types of oil from certain places. Oil is not, in fact, fungible. Drilling ANWR would help California a lot, but not so much the East Coast refineries that depend on other sources of heavier stuff.

5. It turns out that the right "cut" of the oil with a very specific T50 and T90 (the temps at which 50% and 90% boil or "vaporize") burns very cleanly very very low emissions. This is what we burn in CA as "reformulated" gasoline, and it is 90% responsible for the decrease in smog in our cities. This also means we have a unique supply problem, with only about 5 or 6 refineries for the whole state. Pipelines do not cross the Rockies. These sorts of special state standards are what Bush calls "boutique fuels" and oil companies don't like them. They have to spend more to make them. The sales price of oil does not require oil companies to sell gas more cheaply (they sell that oil, they don't buy it), but refining costs do matter.

6. If you can find racing fuel in your neighborhood, give it a try. Racing fuel is not a byproduct of the petroleum cracking, but is special. Instead of being a hodgepodge of hundreds of hydrocarbons produced in the big distillation jamboree, it is specially formulated of 3 or 4 compounds tops. It gets 104 octane, and your car will sing. The difference between 87 and 92 octane is like the difference between 2-buck-chuck and Kendall Jackson box wine (take your pick which is which). Racing fuel is a '45 Bordeaux. It costs about $6-$8/gallon where sold (there are 4 stations in LA which do). It's starting to seem not so bad.

7. In most places, there ain't no difference between gasolines sold at Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, or other gas stations across the street. They transmit them in shared pipelines around the country. Each company puts X gallons in the pipe, and withdraws X amount at the other end. It's all mixed up on the way. Chevron puts in the Techron stuff at the end before putting it in the tanker trucks. ARCO, as mentioned before, does its own supply system differently.

Hope this was interesting.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

THANKS! That was great! Very informative! How come NOVA or Frontline haven't done a story on this!!? 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I have been told that one reason for using higher octane rated fuels -- certainly in Australia and I assume the situation is similar in the USA -- is that one additive is a cleaning product that helps keep the engine clean. Any information on this?

Also friends who use higher rated fuels have claimed that the performance they get (miles per gallon) is higher and hence justifies the extra cost. From what you have said I get the impression this wouldn't be the case.

I can't really comment given that I haven't owned a car since I lived in LA. 

// posted by Numbat

Anonymous said...

I dated a guy for a while who was into cars and who had worked for Mercedes and was trained as an auto engineer. He explained to me how an engine works, which I won't even try to remember here. But he flat out told me that higer octane gas makes no difference in an engine. So I can confrim that part. As for the rest of it, thanks! That was interesting and I shared it around because people need to know that gas, like everything else, is a product and it will be sold like one. 

// posted by USwest

Dr. Strangelove said...

This is great stuff, LTG. Great stuff! #2 and #3, about the premium gasoline scam, is fascinating. I believe my old Saturn used to run smoother on the highest octane rating I could get my hands on (92) but I suppose I could have been mistaken. My current car, a no-frills Ford pickup truck, has never used anything but 87. I'd love to try racing gasoline... when I have a different truck. And yes, six bucks a gallon is starting to sound reasonable. How scary is that?

Point #7 is amazing. No wonder they don't need to collude in order to get identical prices--it's just gas-goes-in, gas-goes-out. I'd love to see a NOVA or Frontline special on all this too, as RbR says. It's great when someone can add new information to the blog! A public service, you might say. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Excellent and informative post.

>It gets 104 octane, and your car will sing. The
>difference between 87 and 92 octane is like the
>difference between 2-buck-chuck and Kendall
>Jackson box wine (take your pick which is
>which). Racing fuel is a '45 Bordeaux.

But you just said that octane doesn't matter!? I'm guessing that the fact that racing fuel has high octane isn't the significant feature -- it's the 3 or 4 select compounds instead of all the random junk compounds (mmm...tar...)

Interestingly, according to the Wikipedia article on ethanol fuel, a significant problem with pure ethanol is the octane is _too high_ (113), meaning you'd need to change "the compression ratio or spark timing to obtain maximum benefit." 

// posted by Bob

Anonymous said...

Bob- you're right that part of the racing fuel umph is its purity. But the octane matters. Yes, higher octane does affect engine performance - a little. For one, the "knock" - fuel igniting because of compression rather than the spark of a spark plug - is a symptom of low octane level. The difference between 87 and 89 or 92 isn't much, and certainly isn't "required" for any car. But super high octane ratings in a very pure fuel like racing fuel mean the engine works extremely well.  

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

Being a car guy i can tell yes there is a difference in Higher Octanes.. especially with older cars... Now if you are into performance you tend to manually set your time a little advanced more then factory setting...now with regular 87 octane my car even with low 9.0 compression will detonate alittle... to cure this i run premium and the detonation is non exhistant.. After about 1990 computer controlled cars can adjust for the fuel they burn... SO thus your car will run with whatever fuel. Cars requiring higher Octane, like a MIni cooper Will lose performance(no your wife the grocery getter might not notice, but the guy who takes his car to the track and sweats everything will). Current Minis have pretty Hi compression.. i believe 10:1 which is about 160psi -180psi cylinder.. If you run a few tanks of regular unleaded performance and gas mileage goes down.. Now a normal car like a what mass America drives is 87 Octane rated.. So you will not see any difference or only a little.. I had a 2004 Jeep Wrangler(87 recommended) that would just ping a hair very lightly around 45mph(in certain situations) well since i would mix 89 Octane that little ping just went away.. The manual says a little pinging is normal... but i myself would rather have no pinging so i would mix or alternate 89 with 87 octane... Now what brought me to this page and what bugs me... Is not all Chevrons,Texacos have Techron added where i am . Techron is awesome... but i cant find anywhere where its actually added.. I talked to a fuel truck driver and he told me there is no difference in gas around here... I mean as far as their advertized packages... This gets my goat because i am trying to find a higher quality fuel , for my 91+ required vehicle,,

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