The biofuel industry and federal government haven’t done enough to warn motorists about the dangers of pumping higher ethanol blends of gasoline into older cars and trucks, the head of the American Automobile Association told Congress on Tuesday.
At issue is E15, a newly approved fuel containing 15 percent of ethanol, higher than the 10 percent blend commonly available at filling stations along the nation’s highways.
“The sale of E15 at this point in time is irresponsible,” said AAA president Robert Darbelnet.
Testifying before the House Science Environment Subcommittee, Darbelnet said the government should halt E15 sales until additional testing allows ethanol producers and automakers “to agree on which vehicles can safely consume E15 and make sure the consumer is adequately informed of the risk.”
“Our issue is not with ethanol,” Darbelnet stressed. “We see the benefits of reduced dependency on fossil fuel (and) additional options for consumers.”
Three years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency approved the sale of E15 for model year 2001 and newer cars and light trucks. But the agency did not clear E15 for use in older vehicles, boats or other devices, such as lawn and garden equipment.
Filling stations that carry the fuel — about 20 of 169,000 nationwide — are required to post warning labels to help steer motorists toward the right gasoline for their vehicles.
But automakers, the oil industry and small equipment groups insist those warning labels are insufficient, too tiny and too easily disregarded.
Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., noted that concerns about misfiling have been raised before, including when unleaded fuel first hit the market. But Darbelnet said the change to unleaded fuel also came along with different sized nozzles, to help reduce the risks that motorists would pump the wrong gasoline into their cars.
Former Sen. Wayne Allard, now a lobbyist for the American Motorcyclist Association, said the risks are especially great for bikers refueling with blender pumps designed to deliver both traditional E10 and E15. Although a small amount of stray E15 may not pose a problem to a vehicle with a large gas tank, he said, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles carry far less fuel.
“Residual fuel left in a fueling hose could be detrimental to the performance of motorcycle or ATV engines due to the small size of their fuel tanks,” he warned lawmakers. “The use of E15 will lower fuel efficiency and possibly cause premature failure. In off-road engines, the effect can be dangerous for consumers.”
Read more: Clashes over ethanol in gasoline intensify
The hearing was stacked with E15 critics, and biofuels boosters said that was no accident.
Tom Buis, the CEO of Growth Energy, said in a letter to the panel that Tuesday’s hearing was one in a series that “have only presented one side of the story, highlighting witnesses who have been some of our most vocal critics and have failed to include any representatives of the ethanol production industry and the 200 biorefineries across the country.”
Buis noted that before E15 was approved, it underwent rigorous testing by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. And, he stressed that the fuel is a “voluntary choice” for both retailers and motorists.
Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and David Vitter of Louisiana have introduced legislation that would effectively reverse the EPA’s approval of E15 by imposing a 10 percent ethanol cap on gasoline.
While the ethanol industry has cast the measure as premature and irresponsible, Darbelnet said the timing makes sense. “It’s going to be easy to stop when it’s only 18,” he said, referring to the number of stations selling E15. “It’s going to be hard to stop when it’s 100,000.”
The congressional debate over E15 comes as the oil industry and some lawmakers are looking to rewrite the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires refiners to blend steadily increasing amounts of ethanol and other alternatives — up to 36 billion gallons in 2022 — into the nation’s transportation fuel supply.
The EPA sets annual targets for renewable fuels under the mandate, including next-generation biofuels made from non-edible materials. For instance, the EPA just proposed establishing a 14 million gallon target for cellulosic biofuel made from grasses, solid waste and other non-edible material in 2013, though virtually none was commercially available last year.
Read FuelFix’s ongoing coverage of the ethanol debate:
Ethanol gains against gasoline on lower supply (Feb. 26)
What’s the biggest threat to the Gulf of Mexico? (Feb. 12)
Obama won’t abandon ethanol, official says (Feb. 8)
Lawmakers pitch plan to tweak renewable mandate (Feb. 7)
Unusual allies fight renewable fuel standard (Feb. 4)
EPA adds to controversial biofuel mandate (Jan. 31)
Report: E15 causes some cars’ fuel systems to fail (Jan. 29)
Court rejects EPA biofuel mandate (Jan. 25)
Court rules against Big Oil in dispute over ethanol blend (Jan. 15)
Perry loses bid for renewable fuel waiver (Nov. 16)
Valero restarts two ethanol plants (Sept. 20)