A recent study finds that using gasoline with 15 percent ethanol (E15) could harm millions of vehicle engines despite the blended fuel's having received the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) blessing, officials with oil and gas and automotive trade groups said last week.
"EPA's decisions in 2010 and 2011 approving E15 ethanol-gasoline blends for most American vehicles were premature and irresponsible," said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute (API), during a May 16 conference call with the press.
The EPA decisions allow E15 in motor gasoline for 2001 and newer model passenger cars and light trucks. Refiners, automakers, fuel retailers and others have expressed concerns about the use of E15. They argue that the higher percentage of moisture-attracting alcohol in the fuel could lead to corrosion of automobile engines as well as fuel dispensing and storage equipment.
"EPA approved E15 knowing ongoing vehicle testing had not been completed," said Gerard. "Worse … it approved the fuel even though government labs had raised red flags about the compatibility of E15 with much of the dispensing and storage infrastructure at our nation's gas stations."
During the call Wednesday, Gerard and top officials with Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers released the final report for an important part of the Coordinating Research Council's (CRC) extensive testing of higher blends of ethanol in existing vehicles. CRC is a not-for-profit organization supported by the petroleum and automotive equipment industries.
Corrosion Could Affect 'At Least 5 Million' Vehicles
"Today, the results of just completed engine testing of E15 by the Coordinating Research Council confirm that EPA did not perform due diligence and moved too quickly in its E15 vetting process," Gerard said. "The tests provide strong evidence E15 could damage the engines of many cars and light trucks."
The officials estimated that "at least 5 million" vehicles currently in service in the United States could be at risk of corrosion from E15. They also pointed out that the blended fuel threatens the physical integrity of infrastructure at roughly 157,000 retail establishments.
CRC's Engine Durability study tested duplicates of eight different vehicle model engines in a total of 16 vehicles spanning the 2001-2009 model years. None of the vehicles was a flexible-fuel vehicle (FFV).
According to CRC, the vehicles were tested over a 500-hour durability cycle that corresponds to approximately 100,000 miles of vehicle usage. Researchers monitored the following engine operating parameters during testing: cylinder compression, valve wear, valve leakage, emissions and emissions control system diagnostics. Michigan-based FEV, Inc., which CRC described as "a longtime consultant" to EPA, performed the study on CRC's behalf.
CRC stated that two of the engine types tested on E15 experienced mechanical damage. In addition, the investigators found that another engine showed increased tailpipe emissions beyond the allowable limit.
"Clearly many vehicles on the road today are at risk of harm from E15," said Mitch Bainwol, President and CEO of Auto Alliance. "The unknowns concern us greatly, since only a fraction of vehicles have been tested to determine their tolerance to E15."
Bainwol added the vehicles at risk simply were not built to handle E15. As a result, his group and others tried unsuccessfully to persuade EPA to postpone its E15 decisions in 2010 and 2011 until further data became available. He pointed out the EPA based its decision largely on a U.S. Department of Energy Study of E15's effects on catalytic converter systems but not on the broader engine durability criteria that the CRC testing considers.
According to CRC, the cost of E15-induced engine damage could be significant for motorists. It predicts the most likely repair would be cylinder head replacement, which it estimates would cost $2,000-$4,000 for single cylinder head engines and twice as much for V-type engines.
Wait for the 'Real Science'
"Our goal is to ensure that new alternative fuels are not placed into retail until it has been proven they are safe and do not cause harm to vehicles, consumers, or the environment," said Mike Stanton, president and CEO, Global Automakers. "The EPA should have waited until all the studies on the potential impacts of E15 on the current fleet were completed."
In response to the study, the head of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) said that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson should rethink her October 2010 and January 2011 decisions to grant partial waivers allowing the use of E15. The former waiver applies to 2007 light-duty motor vehicle models and newer while the latter applies to model years 2001 through 2006.
"EPA has a responsibility to protect the American people from inadequately tested fuel blends," said AFPM President Charles T. Drevna.
"Consumers have the right to expect federal officials to devote adequate time and funds to follow real science -- not political science -- and to put the interests of the American people first," Drevna continued.
"No one should be asked to pump first and ask questions later and become a participant in a giant science experiment to line the coffers of large agribusinesses while overlooking the real-world implications of E15."
Clearing the Air or Muddying the Waters About E15?
In defense of E15, the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) called the CRC test results "fundamentally flawed".
"Accepting the status quo in a fuel market monopolized by petroleum as the best this nation can do is unacceptable," according to RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen. "After 6 million miles and years of testing, the Department of Energy found no problems with the use of E15 in vehicles made since model year 2001."
RFA also pointed out that some of the vehicles in the CRC study failed on gasoline without ethanol (E0) but that no gasoline with 10 percent ethanol (E10) was tested. In addition, RFA contends some of the vehicles tested were under recall by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"By funding research using questionable testing protocols and illegal fuels, the results of this study are meaningless and only serve to further muddy the waters and shun the overwhelming desire of 75 percent of Americans for greater choice at the pump," said Dinneen.
The CRC study's findings did not impress RFA, but they did prompt Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin to take action. Sensenbrenner had previously introduced legislation that would require the EPA to contract with the National Academies to subject E15 to further study. In a letter posted Thursday, Sensenbrenner urged Jackson to throw her support behind his bill.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: You can review the current text and status of Sensenbrenner's bill [H.R. 3199] by searching here.)
Matthew V. Veazey has written about the upstream and downstream O&G sectors for more than a decade. Email Matthew at email@example.com.