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In a time of crushing budget deficits, the people who will be looking to preserve public support include the makers of ethanol. They've got a lot of support now, by the way, and the industry has found a new partner - NASCAR. Jessica Naudziunas of Harvest Public Media has the end of ethanol series this week.

JESSICA NAUDZIUNAS: In NASCAR, a pit stop takes just seconds. This February, starting at the Daytona 500, the sound of the stop will be a little different. Pit reporter Steve Richards demonstrates how it might go down.

STEVE RICHARDS: And here comes Jeff Gordon. Nice clean stop in his pit box. The first of two cans of the all-new Sunoco Green E15 fuel going in.

NAUDZIUNAS: Did you catch that? Sunoco Green E15. NASCAR will use a fifteen percent ethanol gas blend. Just a bit more ethanol than E10 - what many gas stations today offer as regular fuel. Trade group Growth Energy has signed a six-year deal with NASCAR to promote the new product.

So if Jeff Gordon wins the Sprint Series on Sunoco Green E15, ethanol must be liquid gold, right? It really depends who you ask. If ethanol's Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis has your ear, you might think ethanol is good for you.

TOM BUIS: They wouldn't be going backwards in choosing their fuel. And so it's a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate to consumers what a great fuel it is.

CHARLES DREVA: I think it is a complete bastardization of comparison.

NAUDZIUNAS: That's Charles Dreva, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. He's part of a coalition fighting the EPA's recent green light for 15 percent ethanol in some cars.

DREVA: To say, well, NASCAR can use it, then the average driver can use it, no more than you can say, well look, if it is good enough for NASA to put rocket fuel in Challenger, then we can put it on automobile, too. Completely different applications. Completely different fuels.

NAUDZIUNAS: For years, ethanol has been used as a fuel additive to boost octane. But at higher levels, Dreva says, ethanol makes engines knock. And...

DREVA: A gallon of gasoline will take your vehicle a lot further along down the road than a gallon of ethanol will.

NAUDZIUNAS: As the ethanol and oil industries squabble, the word on the street is just as divided. Not everyone lines up happily to buy ethanol.

INSKEEP: Ethanol? I wish we could do away with ethanol all altogether.

Unidentified Woman #1: Our Volvo gas mileage dropped substantially with E10.

INSKEEP: I feel like I'm being ripped off by E10 gas.

Unidentified Man #2: Even Al Gore has renounced ethanol.

NAUDZIUNAS: That was just a selection among thousands of comments from one online community.

Tom Buis of ethanol's Growth Energy casually rejects this angry chorus of what he calls misinformation.

BUIS: The differences between E10 and E15 would be minimal at best, if nonexistent - or probably more likely nonexistent, in terms of miles per gallon.

NAUDZIUNAS: But who to believe? To get that answer, we'll use an extreme example.

Dan Edmunds is director of vehicle testing for auto research website Edmunds.com.

DAN EDMUNDS: Now, let me see if I can pull up some notes here, because I made some but then I had to move to another computer.

NAUDZIUNAS: Okay. While Edmunds is looking for his facts, you should know how he found them. To test ethanol fuel efficiency, Edmunds drove from San Diego to Las Vegas in a flex-fuel car. First, he fueled up at the neighborhood pump with regular E10 gasoline.

EDMUNDS: On gasoline, we made the round trip with 36.5 gallons of gasoline.

NAUDZIUNAS: Then he used E85 - 85 percent ethanol. It's available in small pockets throughout the country.

EDMUNDS: And on E85, it took 50 gallons - 37 percent more fuel to make the round trip. Same distance, same vehicle.

NAUDZIUNAS: As ethanol replaces gasoline, you'll likely make added stops at the gas station. Still, the ethanol industry cites their research, which says otherwise.

This fuel fight is revving up even more. Engine makers this week joined oil companies and others in filing lawsuits to block the government's approval of E15 - similar to NASCAR's new fuel - for use in some cars. And major U.S. oil refiners are refusing to sell the higher blend.

But to meet the government's renewable fuel mandate by the year 2022, the ethanol industry says, all fuel needs more ethanol. Their sweet spot is closer to E27. Drivers, start your engines.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Naudziunas in Columbia, Missouri.

INSKEEP: And you can find all of our ethanol stories at our high-powered website, npr.org.

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