EPA decides to wait for data on ethanol increase

The Environmental Protection Agency  announced today that it would defer deciding on a request by Growth Energy, an ethanol trade group, to increase the allowable blending percent of ethanol in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent.  Public Citizen commented in July on the petition, strongly urging that EPA deny the request for a waiver.

EPA’s decision to defer the decision until the Department of Energy’s  tests of long-term durability and reliability of vehicles running a higher ethanol percentage is completed.  The final report is expected in August 2010, and EPA states in its letter to Growth Energy that it expects to evaluate interim reports and make a determination “mid-year” to potentially allow 15 percent ethanol for vehicles built after 2001.

Public Citizen strongly opposes allowing 15 percent ethanol to enter the fuel stream for vehicles built after 2001.  This assumes vehicles with sophisticated emissions control systems, which are capable of adjusting to higher ethanol content.  But Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimates that 50 percent of vehicles sold 15 years ago are still on the road, so there is a significant number of vehicles on the road that are not capable of making this adjustment.

Vehicles that cannot adjust to higher ethanol content and run the higher blend anyway are at risk of vapor lock, a condition created when water, which dissolves in ethanol, builds up in the gas line and prevents combustion, as well as corrosion damage to engine and fuel system parts.  Many manufacturers specifically advise vehicle owners from fueling with blends of ethanol greater than 10 percent.

Preliminary results of the DOE testing suggest that problems with greater ethanol blending aren’t isolated to older vehicles.  In a preliminary report, DOE found that 7 of 16 tested vehicles, including two model year 2007 vehicles did not adjust properly to 15 percent ethanol.  Running in these conditions could cause costly damage to emissions control systems.  Drivers who experience this damage may find themselves failing emissions inspections, and having to pay the cost of replacing the emissions control system out of pocket, since manuals state that running higher ethanol percentage may void the warranty.

Forcing a fuel on the market to meet an arbitrary volume goal without considering whether it is a worthwhile alternative could place vehicle owners at risk of doing costly damage to their vehicles.  Ethanol has dubious environmental benefits, and is supported by expensive subsidies.  Increasing ethanol blending to 15 percent could also have a negative impact on air quality.  EPA must consider raising the ethanol content of gasoline in a global context that considers whether ethanol is the right policy for achieving national goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting oil dependence.

Lena Pons is a transportation policy analyst for Public Citizen.