Cleaner-burning fuels go mostly unnoticed by drivers

Cleaner-burning fuels go unnoticed by drivers asoline, manufacturers say, is getting greener by the year. Major gasoline brands have steadily rolled out cleaner-burning fuels for more than a decade, spurred by a congressional mandate to lower exhaust emissions of harmful chemicals.

Some companies are going beyond federal requirements. British Petroleum (BP), for example, recently introduced a new premium blend that cuts sulfur emissions to levels not required until 2008.

Others are promoting fuels they claim improve the performance of the automobile. Last week, Shell Oil Products launched a $25 million campaign to promote a new additive the company says protects cars' engines.

While the petroleum industry devotes millions to advertise its new gasolines, many industry observers are asking one significant question: Do consumers care?

Past efforts by gasoline companies to capitalize on Americans' growing interest in the environment have, in many cases, been greeted with cynicism or relative indifference, experts say.

Consumer decisions about where to fill up overwhelmingly hinge on price and convenience, not gasoline quality. The reasons vary, experts say. But many point to American consumers' tendency to reject the idea that automobile exhaust can be anything but harmful to the environment.

"Consumers are rarely motivated to buy something that advertisers say 'is not as bad as it used to be,' " says Rick Wilk, an anthropology professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. "It's kind of like trying to sell a healthy form of sugar."

A lack of interest in products that promise to benefit the environment is not unique to gasoline. While 30 percent of American consumers say they would be willing to pay extra for environmentally benign products, only 3 percent actually do so, according to Professor Wilk.

Still, in promoting "green" fuels, gasolinemakers face a one primary obstacle: Drivers cannot measure the cleanliness of new fuels, or see the difference with their own eyes.

In addition, consumer mistrust of gasoline-marketing claims may carry over from the 1960s, when Texaco heavily touted an additive that was later proved not to improve the gasoline's quality. "Those things tend to linger a long time," says Amy Jaffe, an energy analyst at Rice University.

Ms. Jaffe says recent efforts by one major manufacturer to promote a new additive met with negligible response from consumers. "The gossip was that having this ad campaign didn't really work at all."

Manufacturers don't credit higher- premium or cleaner-burning fuels for boosting sales. But they do argue that drivers appreciate their availability.

"We believe they do respond positively to having a choice," says BP spokesman Scott Dean.

Yet in her five years working at BP stations, Cathy Blanton has never been asked about the merits of the gasolines' components. "What I hear about all the time is price," says Ms. Blanton, manager of a BP station in Forest Park, Ohio.

Many industry observers point to Americans' preference for large automobiles as a good indicator of their level of concern for the environment.

"The reality is, not only do Americans not pay much attention to gasoline, they also buy cars that are big and guzzle a lot of gasoline," says Michelle Foss, director of the Institute for Energy, Law, and Enterprise at the University of Houston.

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