Maryland motorists could hardly believe their eyes the other day when a few gas stations around the state advertised fuel at $1.85 a gallon.
Prices haven't been at that level since January of 2005, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.
But the fuel selling at $1.85 a gallon at five stations was different from that offered by the vast majority of other stations in the state.
It contained only a small amount of expensive imported oil. The primary ingredient was corn, a grain grown by farmers throughout the state and used primarily in the production of chicken feed.
In the fuel industry, they call it E-85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol, made primarily from corn, and 15 percent regular gasoline.
Unfortunately, those low prices didn't hold very long. It was part of a promotion marking the opening of five new E-85 fuel outlets in the state.
Gas stations in Rockville, Frederick, Takoma Park and Germantown offered E-85 at $1.85-a-gallon for only 185 minutes recently.
But the opening of the stations selling corn-based fuel could still mean a nice saving for motorists at fill-up time. In recent months, E-85 has been selling at other gas stations for about 40 cents-a-gallon less that regular gasoline, said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.
According to the association, the new stations selling E-85 include:
* Congressional Sunoco, 1469 Rockville Pike, in Rockville.
* Frederick Town Mall Chevron, 1395 West Patrick St., in Frederick.
* Takoma Park Texaco, 6400 New Hampshire Ave., Takoma Park
* Town Center Chevron, 12301 Middle Brook Road, in Germantown.
* Chevron, 20510 Frederick Road, in Germantown.
The first E-85 station selling fuel to the public in Maryland opened at a site near Fort Meade in 2001. It does not sell the fuel now, but it is expected to resume sales in the near future.
Other stations selling the fuel are on West Street in Annapolis and at a government facility in Gaithersburg.
There are five other E-85 stations in Maryland that serve the state's fleet of 1,200 flex-fuel vehicles. They do not sell to the general public.
Gov. Martin O'Malley says he would like more stations serving the fleet.
"If E-85 is going to be widely used," he said during a news conference last month, "it needs to be widely available."
According to Hoot, E-85 was not only putting more money in the pockets of motorists, it was also helping farmers pay their bills.
The production of ethanol is credited with boosting the price state farmers receive for their corn from about $2.50 a bushel two years ago, to as high as $8 this year. Corn prices ranged from $5.17 a bushel to $5.61 throughout the state last week, according to Kevin McNew, a managing partner of Go Grain LLC, a commodity research firm in Bozeman, Mont., and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.
Hoot said that every car sold in the United States can operate on a blend of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent regular gasoline. But not all cars can run on E-85, she said.
Auto manufacturers, both domestic and foreign, however, have been increasing the number of models that operate on the greater percentage of ethanol fuel.
The production of ethanol is reducing the country's dependence on foreign oil. According to the National Corn Growers Association, ethanol production this year is credited with displacing the equivalent of 52 large oil tankers filled with imported crude and with helping to reduce gas prices.
Ron Litterer, president of the association, said U.S. corn growers are working toward a common vision to produce 15 billion bushels of corn and provide 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2015.
He said this was in addition to the corn produced for food and livestock markets.
Farmers are expected to produce more than 12 billion bushels of corn this year, with a portion going to the production of 9 billion gallons of ethanol.
The association says that for every barrel of ethanol produced, 1.2 barrels of petroleum are replaced.
Ethanol also helps to moderate the cost of gasoline. A commodity analyst at Merrill Lynch recently estimated that expanding biofuel production has reduced the price of gasoline by 15 percent.
"By using ethanol to keep gas prices 15 percent lower, U.S. consumers save approximately $70 billion at the pump each year," Litterer said.
"America is at the beginning of a new era of energy that is looking beyond fossil fuels and beyond imported fuels, and U.S. corn growers are excited to be a part of this transition," he said.