In one of the most blatant examples of pandering to a powerful constituency, the Obama administration has approved a new form of gasoline for use in model 2001 and newer vehicles. It is called E15 -- a blend of 85 percent gasoline and 15 percent ethanol.
Motorists are familiar with gasoline blended with 10 percent ethanol (E10), but this fuel contains more of the corrosive corn-based alcohol. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, E15 was approved "at the request of Growth Energy and 54 ethanol producers" who are seeking a larger share of the motor fuel market.
Under the Clean Air Act, EPA checks new fuels for their impact on air quality and human health, but it is not required to consider their impact on vehicles. After the U.S. Department of Energy conducted tests, EPA signaled its intention to approve E15.
The auto and oil industries asked the agency to wait until research was completed on E15's impact on vehicle components, including engines. Their jointly sponsored, three-year research by the Coordinating Research Council was in the process of testing the potential effects of both E15 and E20.
But the agency moved forward with two "partial waivers" allowing the sale of E15. Lawrence, Kan., service station owner Scott Zaremba has become the first petroleum marketer in the country to offer the fuel. In his view, the United States "must support the increasingly diverse renewable and alternative fuel options available today" and give "consumers a choice."
But choosing E15 could be costly for consumers. The CRC's tests have shown E15 can damage vehicle engines even in the newer model cars and trucks approved for its use. The researchers found "damaged valves and valve seats, which can lead to loss of compression and power, diminished vehicle performance, misfires, engine damage, as well as poor fuel economy and increased emissions."
The American Petroleum Institute estimates more than 5 million vehicles on the road today could be harmed by E15. And it's likely that motorists will have to foot the bill for repairs because E15 could void warranties. The Association of Global Automakers says "the most likely repair would be cylinder head replacement, which costs from $2,000-4,000 for single cylinder head engines and twice as much for V-type engines."
To prevent motorists from unintentionally putting E15 in their vehicles, the oil industry argued for a label on E15 pumps emblazoned with "WARNING." The ethanol lobby objected, and the label required by the EPA says "caution" in a much smaller font. In even smaller print, the label adds that it is illegal to use E15 in "boats and gasoline-powered equipment," which includes lawn mowers and chainsaws.
The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute calls the 3-inch-square label "frighteningly inadequate." OPEI President and CEO Kris Kiser says E15 can "destroy or damage generators, chain saws, utility vehicles, lawn mowers, boats and marine engines, snowmobiles, motorcycles, ATVs, and more." OPEI is one of several industry groups challenging EPA's E15 decision in court.
Although one would think that Growth Energy would be pleased with its fuel coup, it is not satisfied. It wants the administration to extend the use of E15 to older model cars and trucks "so that every American motorist has the opportunity to use" E15.
The ethanol industry's push for E15 assumes that U.S. farmers have adequate supplies of corn, the primary feedstock for ethanol. This year's drought is expected to reduce the corn harvest significantly and raise costs for both ethanol fuels and food.
Although E15 hasn't gained as much attention as the Solyndra debacle, it is potentially more damaging. By putting politics before science, EPA's approval could be putting millions of consumers' vehicles, gasoline-powered equipment, and their household budgets at risk.
Jane Van Ryan recently retired from the American Petroleum Institute in Washington. She resides in Timberville, Va.