Legalize Methanol
It would boost the economy, and our national security too.


Robert Zubrin

It should be noted that the EPA’s banning of methanol is categorically absurd from the point of view of environmental protection. My results showing sharp reduction in air pollution when methanol is used in place of gasoline are not unique, and not new. In fact, the original sponsors of the development of first methanol and then flex-fuel cars in the 1980s were the California air-quality agencies, which understood the value of methanol as a means of reducing smog. Methanol combustion produces no particulates and much lower amounts of NOx and carbon monoxide (in my tests, running the car on M60 repeatedly produced zero CO) than gasoline. In addition, methanol contains none of the carcinogenic aromatic compounds that are found in gasoline and whose emissions thereby contribute to the nation’s health bill.

Concerns about potential methanol releases to the environment are quite nonsensical, inasmuch as windshield-wiper fluid is one-third methanol, and billions of gallons of it have been dumped directly into the environment (that’s where it goes after your wiper throws it off the windshield) for decades, without any impact whatsoever. So for an agency whose supposed purpose is to ensure air quality to employ the Clean Air Act to keep methanol out of the automotive-fuel market is simply madness.

In addition to virtually banning methanol outright, the EPA has created regulations to prevent cars from being modified by small businesses to optimize their performance, including through the use of methanol. Such activity can be construed under Section 203 (a) (3) of the Clean Air Act to be “tampering” with the car’s emissions-control system, and to be subject to very heavy fines.

Now, it is true that there have been some people in the EPA at various times in its history who have sought to prevent such an abuse of the Clean Air Act. So, for example, on June 25, 1974, Norman Shulter, the director of the Mobile Source Enforcement Division of the Office of Enforcement and General Counsel of the EPA, issued Mobile Source Enforcement Memorandum 1A, stating that

in general, it is clear that the EPA’s primary objective in enforcing the statutory prohibition on “tampering” must be to assure unimpaired emission control. . . . It is EPA’s policy to attempt to achieve this objective without imposing unnecessary restraints on commerce. . . . In the absence of proof that the use of unoriginal equipment parts will adversely affect emissions, constraining dealers to the use of only original equipment would constitute an unwarranted burden on commerce. . . . [Therefore,] unless and until otherwise stated, the Environmental Protection Agency will not regard the following acts, when performed by a dealer, to constitute violations of Section 203 (a) (3) of the Act: (a) Use of a nonoriginal equipment aftermarket part . . . as a replacement part . . . (b) Use of a nonoriginal equipment aftermarket part or system as an add-on, auxiliary, augmenting, or secondary part or system . . . (c) Adjustments or alterations of a particular part or system . . . if the dealer has a reasonable basis for knowing that such adjustment or alteration will not adversely affect emissions performance.


Refining this standard of “a reasonable basis” for modifying a vehicle to use an alternative fuel, Bruce Buckheit, director of the EPA Air Enforcement Division, issued, on September 4, 1997, an Addendum to Mobile Source Enforcement Memorandum 1A, which stated (Section C.3.b.3) that such conversions would be considered acceptable if, afterwards, the converted vehicle was tested for emissions with all the fuels it used and found not to exceed its baseline gasoline-emission levels.