Following the overwhelming success of the federal government’s previous ethanol programs, the EPA is pushing through another new part-ethanol fuel.
On June 19, the EPA approved for sale E15, so named because it contains 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline (up from the current maximum of 10 percent ethanol). The mixture has been in development for at least five years. Last year, NASCAR (which has a very public partnership with American Ethanol, an industry group) started requiring E15 fuel in its race cars, and in September it celebrated reaching 1 million competition miles of driving using the blend. Drivers estimate that the switch has increased their horsepower by 6 to 8 percent.
The EPA has been preparing for introduction of the fuel since 2008, when the agency established its first set of guidelines for testing E15’s market-readiness. But the Auto Alliance and Global Automakers, two trade groups representing the car industry, have accused the EPA of skirting its own instructions by approving E15 before the full testing regimen is completed.
They cite a study by the Coordinating Research Council (CRC), an auto-industry/fuel-industry coalition, which found, contrary to a similar, earlier EPA study, that “many vehicles on the road today are at risk of harm from E15.” The study tested 16 engines designed after 2000 (the only models that are currently approved to run on E15) for effects after 100,000 miles of use with fuel having the increased ethanol content. Ethanol is a high-octane fuel that burns hotter than gasoline. Even recently designed cars are not necessarily configured to handle such a high-octane fuel, which increases the threat of mechanical damage and, ironically, tailpipe emissions beyond the allowable limit. Such malfunctions could be costly to drivers: “The most likely repair would be cylinder head replacement, which costs from $2000–4000 for single cylinder head engines and twice as much for V-type engines.”
Though champions of E15 point to its successful adoption by NASCAR, race-car engines are built to run on higher-octane fuels and can be repaired or rebuilt after every race. Even with the CRC and EPA studies, the body of knowledge on the effect of E15 is still quite limited. As Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Auto Alliance, said, “The unknowns concern us greatly, since only a fraction of vehicles have been tested to determine their tolerance to E15.” For this reason, 14 automakers wrote a letter to the EPA requesting a delay in the approval of E15.
Now that E15 has been approved, at least nine automakers, including Ford and Toyota, have announced that they will not honor warranties on cars using E15. One of the biggest problems with the introduction of E15, according to the automakers, is the likelihood of misfueling — drivers in older cars that cannot safely run on E15 filling up with the new fuel. In the last few weeks, the EPA has rolled out a “misfueling mitigation plan,” which would direct service stations to put 3.625-by-3.5-inch orange-and-black warning cards on E15 pumps reading:
Up to 15% ethanol
Use only in
• 2001 and newer passenger vehicles
• Flex-fuel vehicles
Then, in smaller print: “Don’t use in other vehicles, boats, or gasoline-powered equipment. It may cause damage and is prohibited by federal law.” According to Edmunds.com, some automakers think this label will only add to the confusion of the 40 percent of motorists who drive pre-2001 cars.
Perhaps fortunately, E15 is unlikely to find its way to many service stations soon. Since it isn’t intended for general use, and therefore can’t simply replace the corresponding E10 grade, service stations would have to either install new pumps or else replace pumps that any car can use with ones for E15 cars only — that is, assuming their storage and dispensing equipment is compatible with E15. As Kirk McCauley of the Service Station Dealers of America told Edmunds, “It wouldn’t be economically feasible for many to have to tear up an existing place to put in new pumps and tanks.”
The nationwide spread of the blend may be slowed by state regulations too. As various jurisdictions’ green protections, regulations, and subsidies accumulate, some projects are bound to clash with others that have different priorities. One big stumbling block for E15 is California, whose emissions standards take into account the total “carbon intensity” of a fuel’s production, transport, and storage requirements as well as its tailpipe emissions. This method of calculation makes ethanol a worse environmental bargain than gasoline, and it will likely keep E15 out of California pumps for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, last month Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the Obama administration intends to financially support the fledgling fuel mixture, with the goal of having 10,000 E15 blender pumps installed in the next five years. The administration’s indefinite plan to reach this definite goal involves “grants, loans, and loan guarantees” (the standard catchphrase for this administration’s attempts at green venture capitalism) rather than channeling funds into a direct E15 subsidy. Given the obstacles to E15’s marketability and its possible harmful effects, even this hazy commitment seems like an overreach.
— Nash Keune is a Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the Franklin Center.