Ready or not, here comes E15

When Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem,” he wasn’t just kidding. Reagan’s humorous quips worked so well because there was a lot of truth in them. Case in point: The Obama administration has put its stamp of approval on increasing the amount of ethanol used in blends with gasoline by 50 percent:

The Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday it will allow blends to include as much as 15 percent ethanol (E15), up from the current 10 percent limit (E10). The ruling is part of an effort to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and decrease oil imports.

Yet, a 15 percent blend is not deemed suitable for older vehicles. The EPA said gas stations will be required to clearly label their pumps to prevent customers from buying the wrong fuel.

The agency said the so-called E15 blend should be used only in vehicles built in 2007 or later. The blend should not be used for cars and trucks made before 2001 because they were not designed for higher ethanol blends.

The agency is still reviewing data on vehicles made from 2001 to 2006, with results expected in November.

The increase is not a federal mandate, at least not yet. But still, there are problems. Refiners point out that increasing the ethanol content in each gallon of gasoline will increase the cost and complexity of supplying different blends to retailers, who may have to add or replace their pumps to handle the new blend. Ranchers worry that it will drive up costs as farmers grow less corn for feed and more for fuel. Even environmentalists, who were early ethanol advocates, now complain that higher blends will lead to more forest land being cleared for corn crops. And some cynics have griped that it’s all a conspiracy by the big three car makers, two of whom have been taken over by the Obama administration, to get older vehicles off the road and force consumers to buy new ones that can handle the heavier blend of fuel.

But in reality, the automakers are opposed to E15:

The two main automaker industry lobbies have argued that the U.S. Department of Energy has done insufficient testing to assure that gasoline containing up to 15 percent ethanol won’t harm vehicles.

Increased ethanol composition could affect engine durability, emissions, driveability and on-board diagnostics systems, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers says.

In a Sept. 21 letter to the EPA, the other automaker lobby, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, wrote: “It is in the best interest of all participants, including EPA, DOE and the ethanol industry, that the agency not rule prematurely on such a sizable change significantly impacting government, industry and a huge national market of consumers.”

Automakers certainly don’t want to face a rash of product liability lawsuits which could be brought if the higher ethanol blend causes fuel systems and engines to fail. Although some models can handle ethanol concentrations as high as 85 percent, vehicles rated for E85 have components, such as braided fuel lines, designed to work with the high blend. Ethanol is particularly hard on fuel lines made of plastic, which the alcohol hardens and cracks over time.

The use of ethanol in fuel blends originated when it was found that MTBE, a gasoline additive which was used as an oxygenate and to raise the octane number, could leach into ground water from leaking storage tanks at gas stations. Though not considered a human carcinogen at low exposure levels, MTBE gives water an unpleasant taste at very low concentrations, giving it the potential to make large quantities of groundwater non-potable. For this reason, ethanol was adopted as a replacement for MTBE. Ironically, MTBE was originally added to gasoline as a replacement for lead.

Farmers immediately saw the growth potential in the market for ethanol, and the agribusiness lobby has consistently pressured congress and the White House to adopt ethanol as a motor fuel alternative to gasoline. But ethanol has only 70 percent of the energy of a comparable amount of gasoline, which results in decreased fuel mileage for motorists. Although ethanol burns cleaner in engines than gasoline, growing larger corn crops to produce ethanol requires the use of more fertilizers and pesticides, the runoff from which pollutes the oceans. In addition, some fertilizers release nitrogen directly into the atmosphere forming greenhouse gases that are 200 times worse than carbon, according to some researchers.

There is one fossil fuel which burns cleaner than “renewable” ethanol: natural gas. And in contrast to ethanol use, burning natural gas in internal combustion engines does less damage to motors than either gasoline or ethanol. But the natural gas lobby isn’t as powerful as the ethanol lobby, so good luck with ever getting natural gas widely used as a motor fuel.

- JP

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