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Finance Committee approves E15 fuel, full Council vote in doubt

Chicago gas stations would be required to offer motorists a higher ethanol blend known as E15, under a mandate imposed Monday that may not have enough votes to win full City Council approval.

One week after aldermen voted to increase Chicago’s minimum wage to $13-an-hour by 2019, the Finance Committee vote 11 to 5 to add yet another potentially costly regulation to the mountain of mandates heaped on city businesses.

Chicago will become the nation’s first major city to require gas stations to offer a more environmentally friendly blend of fuel that includes 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline.

The ordinance co-sponsored by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) has been watered down since the original version.

Independent gas stations that sell less than 850,000 gallons-a-year would be exempt from the requirement—up from a 500,000-gallon cut-off in the original version. Stations would also have 360 days to comply, instead of 180 days.

An earlier exemption remains for gas stations located at marinas and where “underground storage tanks are not compatible with the storage of blended fuel.”

Like the heavyweight title fight between ridesharing and the taxi industry, the high-stakes debate has been a full-employment program for clout-heavy lobbyists.

Big oil and the agriculture industry that produces corn converted to ethanol squared off against one another.  Environmental and health groups also supported E15 while the AAA Chicago Motor Club, gas stations owners and retailers lined up against it.

That’s apparently why Burke acknowledged that full City Council approval is far from certain.

“The will of the Council is to move ahead one way or the other. If they want to vote this down, vote it down. But, we’re moving it out of committee. It’s now gonna go to the full floor and it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. Either there’s gonna be a majority of the members in favor of this or there’s not. But, it’s time to move ahead,” Burke said.

Burke argued that there is $11 million available between the ethanol industry and the Chicago Lung Association to help gas stations implement the new regulations.

But, he said, “Keep in mind that there’s 400-plus filling stations licensed in Chicago and only about 100 of those would even be affected by this ordinance. That’s only 25 percent. So, it seems to me that Big Oil realizes that this is an issue that’s going to affect them. And they’re going to do everything they can to stop it.”

Voting against the measure were Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd); Rey Colon (35th); Scott Waguespack (32nd); Emma Mitts (37th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd).

One week after branding the Chicago-only minimum wage hike a mistake, Reilly said, “We’re going to be a city of firsts. There’s some concern that maybe we’re doing a little too much trailblazing on policy issues that only apply to the city of Chicago and its citizens.”

Beth Moser, a spokeswoman for the AAA Chicago Motor Club, argued that 90 percent of the vehicles on the road today are not approved by manufacturers to use E15.

She warned of engine failure and fuel system damage that could trigger costly repairs if motorists purchase the wrong fuel.

“We’re concerned about consumer confusion and them putting in E15 when they didn’t mean to,” Moser said.

“They don’t have to [buy E15]. But, if this is something the City Council proceeds with, clear labeling has to happen. Greater consumer education needs to happen before this goes into place.”

Burke countered that he’s simply trying to “make Chicago the leader in the area of trying to give consumers cheaper fuel and provide cleaner air for the people who breathe in big cities. … It will be precedent-setting and will set the standard for the nation.”