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Shell’s Cellulosic ‘First’ Is More of a Second

June 13, 2009, 9:19 AMBy IAN AUSTEN

Shell and ethanol maker Iogen made much ado last week about the “first” commercial gas station selling cellulosic ethanol — in Ottawa, Canada. But was it the first?

Much fanfare attended the arrival in Ottawa earlier this week of Luis Scoffone, Royal Dutch Shell’s vice president of biofuels. Mr. Scuffone flew in from England and descended, along with John Baird, Canada’s transport minister, on a large Shell station at Merivale Road — an undistinguished avenue of strip malls and big box stores.

It was here, at a single pump, Shell said in a news release, where customers could become “the first in the world to fill their tanks with gasoline containing advanced biofuel made from wheat straw.”

That was news to MacEwen Petroleum, however — a small regional service station chain based in Maxville, Ontario.

MacEwen apparently beat the multinational giant to the punch almost five years ago at a station in downtown Ottawa. And it did so, it seems, using ethanol from Iogen, a cellulosic ethanol maker also based in Ottawa, which recently became half-owned by Shell.


The attraction of cellulosic ethanol is that it’s made from agricultural and forestry waste materials rather than crops grown to produce fuel. That, its promoters hope, will allow it to escape the food-versus-fuel debate which has plagued ethanol made from corn and other crops.

Iogen, which also is supplying the ethanol for Shell’s month-long promotion, uses enzymes to break down wheat straw and make about 60,000 liters of ethanol a month at its demonstration plant in Ottawa.

In an interview following the Shell news conference, Brian Foody, Iogen’s president and chief executive, acknowledged that some of the production not needed by Iogen in the past for testing has gone into the pool of ethanol used for gasoline blending.

“There have been molecules from our plant that have made their way into cars,” Mr. Foody said.

Gas stationIan Austen/The New York TimesMacEwen Petroleum, a small service station operator in Ottawa, said it was selling cellulosic ethanol five years ago. It also said it has been approached by Iogen about supplying ethanol for a MacEwen pump that sells an 85 percent ethanol blend, pictured above.

But executives at MacEwen, which was once a major Iogen customer, said they were a bit surprised, and somewhat amused, by the claims from Iogen and Shell.

When Ottawa hosted the 2004 Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League’s championship, MacEwen and Iogen offered a week long, cellulosic ethanol promotion at a busy station near an expressway in downtown Ottawa.

MacEwen was an early promoter in Canada of ethanol-blended gasoline. Marcel Labelle, the company’s vice president of sales and supply said “we were particularly careful about putting only their product in” the gasoline sold at that station’s ethanol blend pumps during the week preceding the football game.

The effort was publicized in a news release, and official Grey Cup vehicles, which were fueled at the MacEwen station, bore photos of wheat straw, the Iogen logo and the slogan: “Fueled with low CO2 cellulose ethanol.”

Outside of that promotion, Mr. Labelle said that MacEwen regularly purchased most of Iogen’s production during 2004 and 2005 and blended it, at varying levels, into gasoline.

“When we were doing this, the major oil companies wouldn’t touch ethanol,” Mr. Labelle said. “It was taking refined product out of their system. They’ve been caught out. And I’m sure Shell doesn’t want to be embarrassed.”

Kirsten Smart, a spokeswoman at Royal Dutch Shell in London, qualified the company’s earlier claim in an e-mail message on Friday:

“We believe this is the first customer offering where over a month long period consumers can knowingly purchase gasoline with a 10 percent blend of cellulosic ethanol, and the first time it has been actively marketed.”

Phil von Finckenstein, a spokesman for Iogen, said in telephone conversation and by e-mail that MacEwen only offered “a low-level blend” in 2004, not the 10 percent cellulosic mix now on sale at Shell. He added that the pumps were primarily for Grey Cup vehicles. “The public was happenstance if they got the fuel,” Mr. Finckenstein said.

But Mr. Labelle, after consulting company records, agreed that early customers may have received slightly less than 10 percent cellulosic ethanol because there initially was some residual gasoline blended with corn ethanol in the station’s storage tanks.

But that gas station is replenished more than once a week, Mr. Labelle said. So many motorists received gasoline only blended with cellulosic ethanol.

Iogen, Mr. Labelle said, has approached MacEwen about supplying ethanol for a pump at the downtown station that sells an 85 percent ethanol blend, which is used mostly by federal government vehicles. If something comes of those talks, Mr. Labelle said he expected the cellulose marketing machinery to kick in again.

“Once they are done with us,” he said, “they’ll issue another press release.”

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