EPA approval of E15 may be mistake, witnesses tell House panel

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, July 8 -- Federal approval of higher ethanol concentrations in gasoline without further testing could seriously damage engines instead of improving the environment, several witnesses told a subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on July 7.

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s desire to allow more ethanol to be used in conventional vehicles should not be allowed to harm investments motorists make in safe, reliable, and economical vehicles, according to Bob Greco, American Petroleum Institute downstream and industry operations director. Greco told the committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee: “The oil and auto industries cannot support a premature action that could put consumer satisfaction and safety at risk.”

The hearing came 2 days after Rep. F. James Sensenbrunner (R-Wis.), the full committee’s vice-chairman, released statements from 12 automakers regarding the consequences of fuel with 15% ethanol on engines, fuel economy, and warranties.

The statements, in response to a survey he sent June 2 to General Motors, Ford, and 10 other automakers, expressed reservations about allowing ethanol concentrations to rise above their current 10% limit. “Americans need a fuel that will give them more miles out of a gallon of [gasoline]—not one that will prematurely send their vehicles to the junkyard,” Sensenbrunner said on July 5.

“While the details associated with the EPA E15 decisions are complex and esoteric, their impacts are potentially massive,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), the subcommittee’s chairman, as he opened the July 7 hearing. “The properties of ethanol are very different from gasoline, and they may result in problems associated with corrosion, engine failure, increased emissions, materials incompatibility, infrastructure, warranty damage, and the potential for misfueling.”

Basis of decision
But Margo T. Oge, transportation and air quality director in EPA’s air and radiation office, said EPA partially granted ethanol producers’ request for a waiver to raise ethanol levels in gasoline to 15% based on all available evidence, including US Department of Energy and other researchers’ test data.

“Based on this evidence, EPA determined that the Clean Air Act criteria were met for allowing E15 to be introduced into commerce for use in model year 2001 and newer cars, light trucks, and other passenger vehicles,” she told the subcommittee. “EPA also found that the [CAA’s] criteria were not met for older passenger vehicles and other types of vehicles and gasoline-powered equipment because there were insufficient data to allay engineering concerns that the less sophisticated engines and emission controls of these products could accommodate E15.”

EPA consequently raised the allowable ethanol limit to 15% for model year 2001 and newer cars and light trucks, but did not raise the permissible concentration in gasoline for other uses, Oge continued. To reduce the potential for misfueling with E15, the federal regulator required fuel producers who decide to introduce E15 clearly label dispensers and take other steps, she said. EPA also recently released national regulations to further reduce the risk of misfueling, Oge said.

Those steps may not do the job, other witnesses warned. “The reality is that if E15 becomes the standard gasoline in the marketplace, millions of consumers will run the risk of having their vehicles, boats, lawnmowers, and other gasoline-powered devices damaged, because they will not have the option of fueling them properly,” said Jeff Wasil, emissions certification engineer for Evinrude Marine Engines in Sturtevant, Wis.

He noted that while the National Marine Manufacturers Association and others petitioned EPA to require gasoline retailers offering E15 to also offer E10, EPA denied the petition and has no plans to mandate E10’s continued availability. “This will certainly lead to the very misfueling that EPA wants to avoid,” Wasil said.

Potential impacts
Potential adverse engine impacts from a 15% ethanol blend include increased engine heat; leaks from earlier deterioration of seals, gaskets, and fuel lines; and unintended clutch engagement, which would raise safety concerns for chain saws, hedge trimmers, and other blade products, according to Ranajit Sanhu, an independent technical consultant who testified on behalf of the Outer Power Equipment Institute.

“Unequivocally, the answer is that millions of products including most nonroad engines and equipment will sustain a range of damage if the ethanol content of gasoline is increased to 15%,” he testified. Tests by DOE and others confirm this, Sanhu added.

Heather White, chief of staff and general counsel for the Environmental Working Group, and Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, also separately criticized EPA’s E15 actions. “Putting aside the very definite and common sense problem of misfueling that this action will cause, the National Chicken Council cannot understand why the federal government is taking this untimely and unfortunate step to put more pressure on an already precarious corn crop this fall,” Brown said.

But W. Steven Burke, president of the Biofuels Center of North Carolina, said that the private, nonprofit corporation, which the state’s legislature established in 2007 to develop the capacity to produce alternatives to petroleum-based fuels, supports EPA’s E15 decisions.

“More time is clearly needed for advanced biofuels technologies to develop,” Burke said. “In the interim, increased use of ethanol serves as the first stage foundation required for new biofuels technology, affirms biofuels within consumer and national life, and prepares for large amounts of next generation feedstocks, technology, and facilities.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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