Friends don’t let friends use intermediate ethanol blends

Ethanol is the energy policy fix that never quite works. It’s supported by a 45-cent-per-gallon subsidy, can’t be proven to be environmentally beneficial, and could ruin your engine if too much of it is blended with gasoline.

The EPA requested comments on a petition by Growth Energy filed earlier this year, to allow an increase in the allowable ethanol content of gasoline to rise from 10 percent to 15 percent. EPA has until December 1 to respond to the petition. But some Senators have supported an amendment that would require EPA to grant a waiver to allow ethanol blending up to 15 percent.

The big automobile manufacturer trade associations both expressed concern about raising the allowable ethanol content of gasoline to 15 percent. But recently, the automakers have moved to support additional research into the consequences of increasing the ethanol content of gasoline.

The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act required that 36 billion gallons of ethanol be incorporated in the fuel stream by 2022. Currently most ethanol is consumed as a 10 percent blend of ethanol and gasoline. Ethanol is added to meet an air quality requirement in some states. Previously, this requirement was met by MTBE, which has been banned in many states (pdf). EPA requires 11.1 billion gallons of ethanol be used in 2009, but many industry analysts worry that a “blend wall” exists at about 12.5 billion gallons.

As Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety commented in July:

  • There are several concerns that have not been addressed in this petition and can not be resolved without further research.
  • There has not been enough research to support the claim that legacy fleets will be undamaged by the increase in allowable ethanol content from 10 to 15 percent.
  • Many manufacturers specifically state in the owner’s manual that their vehicles are only warranted to run on blends of ethanol up to 10 percent, potentially leaving consumers with costly repairs not covered under their warranty agreements.
  • The environmental benefits of ethanol are questionable, and EPA itself has not resolved its assessment of what those benefits are.
  • Increasing the ethanol content of gasoline will have impacts on air quality and smog-forming emissions that have not been systematically analyzed for public health consequences.

Recently, 70 Baltimore city police cars were sidelined because of problems that appeared after they were inadvertently fueled with gasoline blended with a too-high percentage of ethanol.

The answer to the blend wall gap might well be not pushing more ethanol on the driving public. A better option is diverting more national attention and support to alternatives that can more effectively reduce oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions.