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Major Japanese oil distributors launched a program for promoting biogasoline Thursday as the first shipment of the gasoline blended with plant-derived fuel left a Nippon Oil Corp. refinery in Yokohama in the morning.

Starting Friday, biogasoline will be available at 50 service stations in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures on a trial basis at the same price level as regular gasoline.

The shipment is part of a green program implemented by a group of 10 major oil distributors to curb emissions of global-warming gases.

At a ceremony marking the shipment, Fumiaki Watari, president of the Petroleum Association of Japan, said, “This is a revolutionary project because people can foster awareness of environmental measures by using it.”

Biogasoline, already popular in Europe, is made by blending regular gasoline with 7 percent ethyl tertiary butyl ether, or ETBE. ETBE, an oxygenated component, is made by combining plant-derived ethanol with a petroleum product, isobutylene.

ETBE-blended gasoline can be used in the same way as regular gasoline in cars, unlike that blended with ethanol, which is more volatile and corrosive to car parts.

The oil distributors aim to double service stations selling biogasoline to 100 in fiscal 2008 before going nationwide with 1,000 outlets in fiscal 2009. Full-scale marketing would start the following year.

Besides Nippon Oil, the consortium comprises Idemitsu Kosan Co., Taiyo Oil Co., Fuji Oil Co., Cosmo Oil Co., Kyushu Oil Co., Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K., Japan Energy Corp., TonenGeneral Sekiyu K.K. and Kyokuto Petroleum Industries Ltd.

But the project is not free of problems, including the fact that Japan’s own bioethanol production is very low and dependent on imports. There is another concern that soaring corn prices, triggered by increasing demand for bioethanol, may badly affect famine-prone developing nations.

To achieve the 1997 Kyoto Protocol target, Japan decided in April 2005 to introduce biofuel worth 500,000 kiloliters of crude oil by fiscal 2010.

Under the accord, Japan is required to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 6 percent from the 1990 level during the period 2008-2012.

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