Warning lights and adulterated fuel in Brazil
The manager at the Texaco station at QL 15 in the
Lago Sul of Brasilia, is seen testing the Techron Plus fuel
last Sunday. (Photos by Rasheed Abou-Alsamh)
SEVERAL warning lights lit up on my car’s control panel last Thursday, something that had never happened before with my 2010 Subaru Forester that was only four months old. I immediately looked at my car’s manual to see what they meant.
“Take your car immdediately to your dealer to have it checked if this light goes on,” warned my manual about a yellow-colored, rectangular shape that had come on. “Serious damage can be caused to your engine if you continue to drive with the light on for a long time.”
I decided to have lunch first and then drove my car to the only Subaru dealer in Brasilia, from which I had bought it from. I drove straight to the back of the dealer where the repair garage was located and parked.
“Could you please have a look at my car? Several lights have lit up on the dashboard,” I asked a technician in overalls.
“It must be adulterated fuel,” said a showroom salesman who had overheard my comment to the mechanic. “Check his car,” he told the technician.
A laptop computer was soon attached to my car’s onboard computer and the technician stood there fiddling with the keys of the computer. Sure enough, ten minutes later he had finished resetting my car’s computer, and told me that it had malfunctioned due to adulterated fuel.
I usually fill up my car at Petrobras gas stations, but last week decided to try Texaco’s fuel. I usually use ‘gasolina aditivada’, which is regular gasoline with chemical additives that are supposed to keep your car’s engine clean and improve perfomance. When I pulled up to the pump, the attendant said: “Why don’t you try the Techron Plus? It’s the same price as the Techron.”
At R$2.69 ($1.52) a liter (with more than 60 percent of that in taxes to the federal government), I thought why not? So I filled up with Techron Plus and off I went. Little did I know that when that tank of gasoline was nearly empty the following week, my car’s warning lights would light up.
Petrobras is the Brazilian oil giant that is partially owned by the government here. It has a monopoly on all fuel in Brazil, and other oil companies such as Shell and Texaco all have to buy their fuel from Petrobras. The differences come with the various additives that each oil company puts into its fuels for their more expensive types of gasoline.
A problem that has arisen in Brazil is that of adulterated fuel. Since the 1970s, Brazil has had a major ethanol fuel program, made from sugar cane, and has mandated by law that all gasoline sold in Brazil should have from 20% to 25% ethanol mixed in with it. This has allowed some unscrupulous gas distributors to fiddle with the mix, often adding more alcohol than is allowed by law, or even mixing in cheaper solvents to stretch out the fuel. Alcohol is cheaper than gasoline, so mixing it in with the fossil fuel has definite monetary advantages for gas station owners. But putting too much alcohol or solvents in gasoline is bad for most cars’ engines, which led to my problems, or so it seems.
Adulterated fuel can lead to engine failure, an increase in fuel consumption, pinging in the engine, and damage to the fuel pump. Globo News found in a investigation done last year in Sao Paulo, that several gasoline stations switched their fuel on the weekends to adulterated blends because the Agencia Nacional do Petroleo (ANP), a government watchdog agency, did not have enough inspectors to check stations on Saturdays and Sundays.
The ANP has the power to fine and temporarily close down gas stations that are caught selling adulterated fuel. They have a very informative website (in Portuguese) where one can denunciar (which literally means ‘denounce’ in Portuguese) any station suspected of selling adulterated fuel. They also have lists, organized by state, indicating which stations were fined or closed, and on what date. Thus I looked for my Texaco station, which is located at QL 15 of the Lago Sul, and sure enough found that it had been fined and closed in March of 2007.
“Why don’t you call and denuciar the station,” my mother asked when I told her what happened. “You can do it anonymously.”
To my journalistic sense of fairplay and of always allowing the accused the right to defend themselves, I decided against any denunciations, and instead dropped by the Texaco station last Sunday to talk to whoever was in charge about my fuel problem.
“Let me test the gasoline for you right now,” said the man in charge that day, as soon as he heard of my problem. “I’m sure that our fuel in fine.”
By law, all fuel stations have to perform on the spot density, mass, temperature and purity tests on any fuel they sell if a consumer suspects that they have been adulterated. Bringing out a huge glass test tube, the manager filled it up with fuel from the pump that I remember having filled up and began his tests. (See photos above and below)
The Techron Plus fuel was greenish from all the additives in it, according to the manager.
“You see, it’s density is 0,735 and its temperature is 27.5 degrees centigrade, which is within the allowed limits,” said the manager looking at his handbook on fuel quality guidelines. He then mixed half of the gasoline with a special solution that causes the alcohol that is mixed in with it to separate. That showed that the 25% limit of alcohol had not been surpassed.
“If you look on the Internet, you will see that this gas station is still listed as having been shut down by the ANP. But that was a few years ago, and it was because the owner was putting less (my emphasis added) than the 25% allowed alcohol. He was actually losing money,” he told me.
I find that hard to believe. To try and find out the truth, I emailed the ANP on Monday telling them whatb happened and asked them for their report on that Texaco gas station. I still have not heard back from them, but I somehow doubt that they shut down the station for selling gasoline with less alcohol in it.
I now avoid filling up at Texaco stations, even though the friendly manager invited me to come back and try their fuel again. I don’t think I will ever know for sure whether it was adulterated fuel that caused my car’s dashboard to light up last week, and for all I know Texaco sells excellent gasoline across Brazil. It’s the shady gas distributors and station owners that I don’t trust, and for the sake of my car’s engine and sanity of my mind, I choose to err on the side of caution!
A test tube half filled with Techron Plus gasoline,
separates out after a solutionwas added to it. The fuel rose
to the top, leaving the alcohol in the bottom.