When Kansas is in the news, it’s rarely because the state is on the cutting edge of an issue. But when it comes to giving Americans fuel choice, Scott Zaremba and Zarco USA, his chain of independent gas stations based in and around Lawrence, are trailblazers: The company was among the first to offer alternatives to gasoline like ethanol and biodiesel.
“In 2008, I built one of the first multi-blender locations in the country,” Zaremba says. “We had to actually work with one of the pump manufacturers, because there wasn’t anything out there that could blend the way we wanted to.”
When E15 — a blend of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline that can run in all cars from model year 2001 and on — hit the market in 2012, Zarco USA was the first to sell it to the public.
Zaremba’s decision to offer multiple fuels at his stations didn’t develop in a vacuum. As a second-generation energy marketer, he witnessed his father’s struggles in the retail gasoline market during the 1973 oil crisis and the Gulf War. He remembers not only the high prices that sent our economy into a recessionary tailspin, but also days where his father couldn’t even get gasoline to sell to his customers.
After the economic crisis of 2008 — in which high gas prices played a significant role — Zaremba felt he and his community had suffered enough from the oil monopoly, so he decided to diversify the fuels he offered.
“We wanted to make a change,” he said, “and this can make things better for everybody in your community and everybody in your country by being able to have this product that is locally produced, burns cleaner, is better for the environment if you spill it, and is a total renewable.”
Not everyone felt the same way Zaremba does about fuel choice — namely, people paid by or part of the oil industry, whose record-setting profit margins are threatened by companies like Zarco. Zaremba says that when he unveiled E15 pumps at his station in 2012, those same people targeted him and his company with negative ad campaigns in an attempt to stifle competition and preserve the status quo.
Despite their best efforts to drive a small independent gas station into the ground, Zarco USA continues to successfully do business and sell blends of ethanol ranging from E10 to E85, as well as biodiesel. In fact, about 35 percent of all of Zarco USA’s fuel sales are ethanol, and Zaremba said he would do it all over again if he could. He also believes ethanol still has a lot of space to grow all over the country, if other gas retailers can get the facts.
“Today, a large majority of retailers can put E15 in, without having to do a lot of underground work or pump work or changes in anything. And that can take the place of premium, a dying product, and they can have a higher-octane, cheaper product that hopefully can be more profitable for them.
“So y’know, those are the things you have to look at to see if you want to have something that is cost-effective, a better product, supporting everything locally that we have in our entire infrastructure, and making a financial and a moral choice. How do you want to be perceived in your community for what you’re doing? Are you doing something to add? Or are you just there trading dollars?”