Alternative fuels are widely available at pumping stations across East Tennessee and in part of Arkansas, but not in Memphis.
The Riverside, a gas station on Riverside Drive, has been selling biodiesel, a fuel made from oils and fats, for almost a year. But no local gas stations offer ethanol, an alternative fuel made from corn. City Council member Dedrick Brittenum's constituents aren't happy about it.
"They want to know why they have to drive [so far] to get biofuel," Brittenum said.
On December 18th, the City Council is expected to vote on an ordinance encouraging local retailers to offer ethanol and biodiesel by 2009 and 2010, respectively. It also requires city vehicles to begin using biofuels, when available, by 2009.
But the original ordinance considered by the council would have done more than just encourage retailers to sell alternative fuels.
Brittenum proposed an ordinance that would have required fuel retailers to sell standard diesel with a minimum mixture of 5 percent biodiesel by January 1, 2010, and a minimum mixture of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline by January 1, 2009.
The ordinance passed in its initial two readings before the City Council, but when officials from the Tennessee Petroleum Council, the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association, and the Valero Energy Corporation found out about the ordinance, they wanted a few changes.
"We are not opposed to biofuels, and we have no problem with Memphis making strides in alternative fuels, but we do have a problem with a mandate," said Mike Williams, executive director of the Tennessee Petroleum Council. "It looks like this ordinance [was] telling our members what to sell and telling customers what to buy."
At a meeting last week with Brittenum, oil industry representatives echoed those concerns.
"Our concern is availability and cost of product," said Emily LeRoy, associate director of the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association, a trade organization for petroleum marketers. "The commodities market determines the price of alternative fuels."
LeRoy said many distributors already sell biofuel blends. But she said mandating biofuel use would cripple businesses when the commodities market drives up the price of corn.
"We don't want a situation where our hands are tied and we're unable to be competitive in the marketplace," Williams added.
Currently, Williams said ethanol must be shipped to the area from factories in East Tennessee. Several ethanol plants are planned for West Tennessee and North Mississippi, and ethanol will be available in Memphis once those plants begin producing fuel. Memphis is already home to two biodiesel producers: Memphis Biofuels and Milagro Biofuels.
After input from the industry, Brittenum edited the ordinance so that the sale of biofuel would be voluntary. The council will establish a committee of citizens, biofuel industry representatives, and petroleum industry officials to oversee its implementation.
Though the final ordinance was diluted, biofuels advocate Andrew Couch of the West Tennessee Clean Cities Coalition said he wasn't upset with the changes.
"I don't really want a mandate either. I don't want to force anything on anybody even if it is a good idea," Couch said. "While this ordinance won't necessarily do a whole lot by itself, it sets up a framework that we can work out of."