The driver of a shiny, $15,000 Cadillac Eldorado pulled into a discount gasoline station in Arlington, Va., and quickly began pumping leaded regular gasoline into his tank.
"Doesn't matter whether I use leaded or unleaded," he told another customer. "I ruined my catalytic converter last year during the gasoline short age. Leaded gas was all I could get then."
Drivers like this, federal officials say, are sending US efforts to control pollution up in smoke.
But the free ride for many such drivers may be nearing an end. Soon their efforts to save a few pennies per gallon could be costing them hundreds of dollars.
Studies for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) find that for every 100 motorists who have cars designed for unleaded gas, as many as 10 will put leaded gas in the tank.
Since leaded gas is on average 4-to-5 cents cheaper, they save 50 cents to $1 per tankful. But the lead in the gasoline will destroy the r's catalytic converter which cleans up exhaust fumes.
"It only takes two, three, or four tankfuls of leaded gas to ruin a catalytic converter," says Richard Kozlowski, director of field operations for the EPA. "And without it the emissions go up seven or eight fold."
Even with relatively few American cars using the wrong gasoline, auto emissions could shoot up 20 percent during this decade, solely because of fuel-switching, says the National Commission on Air Quality, a congressional study unit.
During the past eight months the EPA has set out to catch some of these "misfuelers." It has slapped fines totaling $5 million on the owners of fleets and on oil companies.
Federal law makes it illegal for fleet owners to use leaded fuel in cars built for unleaded gas, and gasoline companies are forbidden to sell the wrong kind of gas. Federal law does not forbid individual car owners from switching fuels, but 39 states have laws against tampering with pollution-fighting equipment.
The EPA has sent out detective teams from its Washington and Denver offices to ferret out lawbreakers. They have bagged offenders ranging from the suburban Texas town of Castle Hills, which put leaded gas in its police cars, to a Baton Rouge, La., company, community Coffee Inc., which had to pay the largest fine yet -- $524,000 for putting leaded gas in its vehicles.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. soon will be sending out messages to its credit card holders urging them not to fuel switch. The company knows about the consequences, since the public information campaign is part of a penalty it is paying for putting leaded gas in Sears vehicles in shreveport, La.
Although the EPA's first major effort to halt fuel switching is spotty, a new inspection program mandated for all 50 states could have a broad impact.
Under the Clean Air Act, during the next two years each state must begin testing cars annually for failing pollution controls. "The inspection test is not that regorous and won't catcht them all," says the EPA's Kozlowski. "But it will catch a lot."
Motorists caught with ruined catalytic converters will have to pay $150 to $ 500 to replace the device, he says.
Pollution-watchers disagree about why motorists switch to leaded fuel. A study for the National Commission on Air Quality has just concluded that most fuel-switchers are looking for better engine performance. According to this view, consumers are trying to stop engine knock caused by the lower octane in most unleaded gas.
Bu the EPA has a different opinion. "The information we have tends to show that price does make a difference," Kozlowski says, and he adds that his agency will soon have a new study on the issue.
Unleaded gas almost always costs more than leaded, and the price difference ranges from 2 cents a gallon to as much as 15 cents.
Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based consumer group, blames much of the fuel switching on the price difference. He charges that owners of new cars that require unleaded fuel are a "captive market" for gas stations and that dealers can mark up prices much higher than is justified.
The consumer advocate also charges that the price for unleaded and leaded fuels should be about the same, since they cost about the same to produce -- a claim that oil companies dispute.
a spokesman for Amoco says that his company sells unleaded regular gas at a wholesale price of 4 cents a gallon higher than for leaded regular. "The price spread is correct because it costs to make unleaded," he says.
The Amoco representative adds that local gas station dealers are independent businessmen who may mark up unleaded gas considerably more if customers are willing to pay.
Atlantic Richfield Company reports that it charges only 2-to-3 cents more for its unleaded gasoline and that refinement costs would not justify rates that go up as high as 15 cents more at the retail gas pump.
Both the EPA and gasoline companies argue that motorists can save money in the long run by using unleaded gas in their cars, since it makes the curburetor and spark plugs run cleaner and reduces maintenance costs.