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NEW ORLEANS -- Early last month, Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC encountered a situation in Louisville, Ky., in which cars inexplicably ran out of gas, that was eerily similar to a problem that Shell Oil Co. announced in the New Orleans area last week, reported the New Orleans-based Times Picayune.
Although Marathon Ashland is still investigating the matter, a spokeswoman said the company believes it may have isolated the culprit: elevated levels of what chemists call elemental sulfur. Similar problems have been reported in Toronto and in Pennsylvania.
The problem was not simply the presence of sulfur, said Linda Casey, the Marathon Ashland spokesperson. Indeed, Casey said the levels of sulfur in the gasoline were within the bounds of what's allowed by federal regulations and industry standards. The problem, Casey said, appears to have been the form of the sulfur in the gasoline.
The hypothesis here is that a particular form of sulfur found in the gasoline, which spokesmen for two companies referred to as "elemental sulfur," may have reacted with silver used in the gasoline gauges of some cars.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr. said that he has opened an inquiry into the fuel problem in New Orleans. "I want to make sure consumers get the help they need, or at least know where they can find answers to their questions," Foti said.
Notwithstanding the focus on elemental sulfur, the ultimate source of the problems remains a mystery. Marathon Ashland's Casey said her company had been working with the U.S. Big Three automakers to try to understand the problem, which she said doesn't seem to affect some imports. And the company, she said, has found a process called a "silver strip test" that detects elemental sulfur. The company has also developed a fuel additive to fix the problems in affected gasoline.
But at the end of the day, Casey said, the roots of the problems are simply unknown. "We're not ready to put a label on anything as the cause," she said. "There are just too many unknowns now. The investigation is going to take some time."