A report Dec. 9 about super-premium unleaded gasolines omitted Standard Oil of Indiana's 93-octane Amoco Premium Lead Free brand.
Most of the nation's major oil refiners are trying to boost profits and engine performance by pumping new, super-premium, unleaded gasolines at their service stations around the country.
They are engaged in a race to develop the best unleaded gasolines at the most economical costs, a technology-based competition that is reshaping the face of the domestic petroleum industry.
The contest is taking on increasing urgency because of the government's plans to reduce the availability of leaded gasolines significantly over the next two years. The winners will grab the major share of what already is becoming a very lucrative market for unleaded fuels.
For motorists whose cars require higher-octane gasoline, the super grades will mean better performance and fewer intermittent repairs. They also will mean higher gasoline prices in many cases.
Sun Co.'s 93.5-octane Sunoco Ultra and Shell Oil Co.'s 92-octane SU 2000 currently are the most popular super-premium brands. Exxon, Atlantic Richfield Co. (Arco) and Mobil Corp. also are putting top-grade unleadeds into their pipelines, petroleum industry analysts say.
Indianapolis-based Rock Island Refining Co. is offering a 95-octane unleaded gasoline in Indiana, Michigan and Western Ohio. Unleaded gasolines generally are more expensive than leaded grades. Premium unleadeds, 91.5 to 95 octane, are the most expensive lead-free brands.
But the word from the marketplace is that most of the premium unleadeds are selling well.
About 75 percent of all gasoline sales are self-serve. Last week, the average national price of regular unleaded gasoline in the self-serve category was $1.14 a gallon compared with $1.28 a gallon for premium unleaded and $1.07 for regular leaded (about 89 octane in most places).
Premium leaded, which now accounts for a minute 0.7 percent of all gasoline sold in this country, was selling for $1.36 a gallon.
All of those pump prices include taxes, according to figures provided by Los Angeles-based Lundberg Survey Inc., an oil industry research and data-collection firm.
Regular unleaded prices also trailed premium unleaded charges in the Washington area, said Mary Anne Reynolds, spokeswoman for the Potomac Division of the American Automobile Association. Using averaged figures based on combinations of self-serve and full-serve pump prices, she said premium unleaded gasoline in the metropolitan area was selling for $1.42 a gallon compared with regular unleaded prices of $1.29. But that 13 cents difference between the price of the two unleaded fuels was not stopping motorists from buying large volumes of the premium fuels, Reynolds said.
Based on a just-completed survey of 100 area stations, premium-unleaded sales were up 15 to 20 percent over last year's levels. The recent emergence of the super-premium unleadeds in the Washington market is believed to be contributing to that sales gain, Reynolds said.
"Our survey shows that people are putting it in more and more cars -- old cars, large cars, sports cars, luxury models. Everybody just seems to be crazy about the stuff," Reynolds said.
Officials at oil companies pumping the super grades are ecstatic.
"We had the know-how to make this kind of gasoline available, and the public is accepting it," said Jerry Kroninger, Sun's manager of technical services. Sun's 93.5 octane is flowing into new, computerized cars with high-compression engines and also is being purchased by people who are driving older models originally designed to run on 95-octane leaded fuel.
But "many people are only buying the preconception of high performance" when they buy the super premiums, said Joseph M. Colucci, director of General Motors Corp.'s fuel and lubricants department at GM Research Laboratories in Warren, Mich.
Since 1971, GM and other domestic manufacturers have designed most of their engines to run on 87-octane, regular-unleaded gasoline, Colucci said -- a situation he said is unlikely to change.
"The high-octanes are a marketing tool," Colucci said. "If 87 octane meets the maximum requirements of your engine, you aren't going to get any better performance by buying 93.5. You're just buying the illusion of power when you do that."
The companies serving up the super-unleaded brands today are in the forefront of a move toward a domestic, lead-free gasoline market, petroleum industry analysts say. By 1990, total U.S. lead usage in motor fuels will be down to about 2 billion grams annually, according to industry projections. That compares with total domestic motor-fuel lead usage of 168.7 billion grams in 1977 and 51 billion grams in 1983, according to figures provided by the Washington-based National Petroleum Refiners Association and the Information Resources Inc.
Looked at another way, the leaded content of gasoline now sold in the United States is 1.1 grams per gallon (gpg). The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing either to reduce that level to 0.1 gpg by January 1986 or to 0.5 gpg by July 1985. Lead, particularly tetraethyl lead, is good for motor fuels. But the government long ago determined that lead emissions from automotive exhaust pipes are bad for people and their environment. U.S. oil companies, as a result, have been trying to get the lead out of their gasolines since 1975.
It has been a costly exercise.
Adding lead has been the cheapest and easiest way to boost the octane levels of gasoline. Octane is a measurement of how smoothly and completely motor fuels burn in an engine's combustion chamber. In a gasoline engine, an ideal "burn" moves evenly from the point of ignition -- a spark from a spark plug -- across the combustion chamber. A noisy burn, one that creates knocks and pings and could result in engine damage, occurs when gasoline burns unevenly.
An uneven burn is caused by pre-ignition of some of the air-fuel mixture in the combustion chamber, which occurs as the moving spark-plug flame compresses the air and fuel mixture ahead of it. High-octane fuels tend to be more resistant to pre-ignition than do low-octane fuels. That is the basic value of premium gasolines.
But in an unleaded environment, many oil refiners do not have the technology, money, crude oil supplies or know-how to produce gasolines of sufficient octane, petroleum industry analysts say. Many of those refiners, about 100, already have gone out of business since 1981, according to Dan Lundberg, president of Lundberg Survey Inc.
The oil companies with the money and technology to move ahead are the ones producing the super grades today, Lundberg said. They are also producing quality, regular-unleaded gasoline, which usually has an 87-octane rating, he said.
Those companies are getting higher octanes by experimenting with additives -- ethanol and methanol alcohols are usual examples -- and by investing millions of dollars into exploiting the Western Hemisphere's most abundant petroleum resource -- heavy crude, Lundberg said.
Most gasolines have been refined from light crude. But the emergence of technology designed to extract high-grade gasoline from heavy crude is a major factor in the high-octane race, Lundberg said. "We are entering a golden age of new additives and of refining processes aimed at increasing octane levels without the use of lead," Lundberg said. "There is a developing fight to build and hold on to market share by having the highest octane possible.
"The new super premiums are part of a campaign to be the first to get out there with the best and to build the best image in the unleaded competition," Lundberg said. Unleaded gasoline now accounts for 60 percent of all gasoline sold in the United States. Of that amount, premium unleaded (including the "super" brands) constitutes 15.3 percent of all domestic gasoline sales and regular unleaded makes up 44.6 percent, according to Lundberg's figures.
But because of the declining number of oil refiners and the push for a lead phasedown, there will be a shortage of unleaded gasoline at some point. That shortage most likely will mean higher fuel-pump prices, Lundberg said.
A report prepared last month for the EPA by Washington-based Multinational Services Inc., regulatory and trade consultants, seems to support Lundberg's thesis. The report predicts "potential shortages of 25 to 70 percent in octane-sufficient leaded gasoline over the next two years" if the EPA's program to phase out leaded gasoline is put into effect. That shortfall could lead to "an increase in gasoline prices" and result in "consumer complaints as a result of poor engine performance," the report said.
Before taking further action on a lead phaseout, the report recommends that EPA study the potential magnitude of octane-short fuels and perform environmental impact analyses of new additives and procedures used to boost octane levels in unleaded gasolines.
The EPA has made no public comment on the report. But agency offcials said in interviews that, at the moment, they have no reason to believe that the new super premiums pose a threat to the environment.
"We have no real concern over those high-octane blends out there," said Barry Nussbaum, an analyst in EPA's mobile sources office. Asked if the super premiums were filling a legitimate need, he said: "People apparently want it. They're putting it in their tanks."