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EPA green lights E15 despite resistance from industry groups

McAfee & Taft RegLINC - September 2011

By Jared Burden

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has partially waived Clean Air Act restrictions on gasoline containing 15% ethanol, so-called E15. This clears the way for gasoline producers to begin blending the new product for passenger vehicles made on or after 2011. These new standards were widely supported by ethanol producers, but many industry and even environmental groups have derided the decision.

Ethanol fuel blends have been a contentious topic for several years. Spurred on by corn subsidies and an ethanol blender’s tax credit, ethanol blends have been a popular cost-saving product for refineries and gas stations alike. Some experts have suggested that E15, capitalizing on the competitive advantages of ethanol, may soon become the most prevalent fuel in the country for light vehicles. According to many experts, this could have profound implications for many economic and social facets of everyday life, including used vehicles, small engines, underground storage tanks and even community health.

On July 7 of this year, a subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing allowing experts from various groups affected by the new regulation to voice their opinions. Among the participants were representatives of the oil and gas industry, marine engine manufacturers, alternative fuel nonprofits and the poultry industry. Most were not supportive of the change, although different reasons were given.

Robert Greco III, representing the American Petroleum Institute, was first to remark. His testimony focused on current tests and research indicating that E15 could have detrimental effects on a wide range of engines and mechanical equipment. For vehicles, he pointed out test results illustrating E15 could cause engine failure, erratic or false fuel gauge readings, as well as increased emissions. In particular, the high ethanol blend appears to affect seals and gaskets the most, implicating everything from small engines to common equipment for fuel pumps and safety devices. Several experts concur with this opinion. Jeff Wasil, the emissions certification engineer for BRP Evinrude Marine Engine, testified that “if E15 becomes the standard gasoline in the marketplace, millions of consumers will run the risk of having their vehicles, boats, lawnmowers and other gasoline-powered devices damaged because they will not have the option of fueling them properly.” According to many at the hearing, the increased prevalence of E15 will lead to the destruction or decreased performance of many older vehicles as well as small and marine engines, causing significant losses to consumers.

Many experts also agree that widespread use of E15 will have an environmental impact as well. Wasil pointed out that engines burning E15 run hotter than those burning conventional fuel and therefore produce higher emissions. Heather White, chief of staff and general counsel to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, has pointed out that E15 may lead to an increase in the release of dangerous contaminants into the air. In particular, she claims that “[t]he more a vehicle burns higher ethanol blends, the more it emits the toxic pollutants acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and nitrous oxide.”

The EPA claims that it has made its decision to waive the Clean Air Act’s requirements for E15 according to the best science. Moreover, it has mandated that any service station offering E15 to clearly label pumps so that consumers can make an informed choice. However, if, as some predict, E15 becomes the most prevalent fuel on the market, consumers may have little choice.