Clashes over ethanol in gasoline intensify

Opposition to an emerging blend of ethanol and gasoline has intensified in recent weeks, with travel club AAA joining the oil industry, automakers and some environmentalists to question the federal government’s aggressive support for the fuel.

While federal agencies insist that the E15 blend of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol is safe for vehicles made since 2001, the auto club and others contend it can cause damage to engines not designed to burn it.

Those automotive interests, along with food producers, have mounted a legal challenge to higher ethanol requirements, but they suffered a setback this week when a federal appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling that the groups did not show how E15 would harm them.

Many farm groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back E15, which is made using corn-based ethanol. They, along with the U.S. Department of Energy, say extensive testing shows the fuel can be used safely in the later-model vehicles. The EPA and ethanol supporters advocate its use to help reduce reliance on oil-based fuels.

But AAA last month called for suspension of E15’s sale, which the EPA approved in 2010.

The auto club said that a recent study, backed by oil companies and the auto industry, showed that E15 could cause engine failure and damage in vehicles not specifically designed to handle the fuel.

The Department of Energy said the study was “significantly flawed,” limited in its scope and not as thorough or reliable as its own extensive results proving the fuel’s safety for vehicles made since 2001.

Fear of ‘misfueling’

Most gasoline sold in the United States contains up to 10 percent ethanol, and that has not generated the same opposition.

But AAA and others say use of the 15 percent blend could be costly for owners of cars that can’t handle it.

“There are vehicles right now that could use E15, but the issue about labeling and consumer awareness really is troubling,” said John Nielsen, AAA’s director of automotive engineering and repair, referring to pump labels that say the fuel is safe for vehicles made since 2001. “If consumers don’t understand which vehicles can use it, there’s a real good chance of misfueling.”

Automakers say use of E15 in vehicles not designed for it could void warranties.

The American Petroleum Institute, a major oil industry trade group, called for suspension of E15 sales.

“We are very worried about customers being confused and using the wrong fuel in the wrong engine and in this particular case you’ve got EPA compounding the problem and saying we know better than the automakers,” said Bob Greco, the institute’s downstream director.

The charges drew a vigorous response from Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen, who accused AAA of joining the oil industry to block ethanol use.

“The oil industry has made the elimination of the ethanol industry its highest priority and you see the long reach of Big Oil everywhere,” Dinneen said. “And yes, I see it in the AAA campaign.”

But even environmentalists have questions about ethanol. Although proponents say the alternative fuel reduces carbon emissions, a point that opponents debate, ethanol typically requires more water to produce than gasoline.

Ethanol also pulls resources away from food production, driving up prices for corn used for human and animal consumption, said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, a policy analyst for Sierra Club’s green transportation campaign. That same criticism has driven opposition from food producers like Tyson Foods.

“A big concern is that we use about 40 percent of our U.S. corn crop to produce ethanol today,” Prentice-Dunn said. “That’s a hell of a lot of corn.”

AAA, automakers and the oil industry say they favor increasing ethanol use, and that their interest in opposing E15 now is to protect consumers from potential financial losses because of damage to vehicles.

But fewer than a dozen refueling stations nationwide offer E15, said Dinneen, of the Renewable Fuels Association.

So why the outcry to stop sales of E15 when it is ultimately up to a consumer to refuel properly?

“If we’re going to put it out there and make it available there should be an effort to let people know what it is because there is a consequence for misfueling,” AAA’s Nielsen said.

Dinneen said government studies and experiences of car owners in Brazil dispute that notion. Cars there run without incident on a blend of gasoline with as much as 25 percent ethanol, he said.

Adjustments needed

Automaker General Motors says more than 9.5 million of the company’s cars on U.S. roads today can run on E15, including flexible fuel vehicles and all GM vehicles with model years 2012 or later.

But making vehicles safe for E15 requires specific technical adjustments, GM spokeswoman Sharon Basel said.

“There are hardware changes that are required to the engine and fuel lines and fuel systems and then there is also software control changes … that need to be made so that the vehicles run effectively on a higher ethanol blend,” Basel said.

The EPA, however, is standing by its findings and its pump labels, leaving it up to consumers.

But AAA’s Nielsen said any engine wear and tear resulting from E15 use would be difficult to prove, and might not show up until warranties expire.

That would make it difficult for owners to mount legal disputes over warranty coverage, leaving them on the hook for any repairs, he said.

Even if E15 doesn’t cause engine problems, the study suggesting it might demand that regulators gather more information, Nielsen said.

“It was absolutely not conclusive, but I think it really does raise flags that shows there should be more research,” he said.