Report: E15 causes some cars’ fuel systems to fail

Automobile manufacturers and the oil industry on Tuesday released the results of laboratory tests showing that gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol caused fuel pumps and parts to fail, raising the specter of faulty check engine light readings and more frequent breakdowns for cars that use the blend.

The American Petroleum Institute cast the report by the non-profit Coordinating Research Council as fresh evidence that the Environmental Protection Agency should rescind its 2010 decision to approve the sale of the so-called “E15” blend for 2001 and newer automobiles. A previous study by the Coordinating Research Council, which counts API as a sustaining member, linked engine durability problems to E15.

“These results, when coupled with the CRC engine durability study . . . show millions upon millions of consumer vehicles could be adversely impacted with E15,” said Bob Greco, API’s downstream group director. “The more we study, unfortunately, the more issues we uncover.”

But ethanol backers swiftly criticized the new study’s design, calling it flawed for relying on car components tested in isolation with E15 as well as an “aggressive” E15 blend that included more water and acid than what most motorists actually would pump from filling stations.

Tom Buis, the CEO of Growth Energy, said the research could “at best be described as incomplete and cherry picking.”

“This is a classic example of he who pays the piper calls the tune,” Buis said. “Oil companies are desperate to prevent the use of higher blends of renewable fuels (and) have erected every regulatory and legal roadblock imaginable to prevent our nation from reducing our dependence on oil.”

Read more: Clashes over ethanol in gasoline intensify

The CRC research focused on fuel pumps and fuel level senders, which send signals about the amount of fuel in vehicles to fuel gauges and onboard diagnostic systems.

Fuel pumps were evaluated two ways: first with eight periodic flow tests on a pump soaked in E15 over 12 weeks, and second, by investigating potential failure mechanisms under 3,000 hours of continuous operation, representing about 90,000 miles of travel. Fuel level senders were tested by cycling the powered devices in test fuel.

One tested pump seized when used with E15 and a more aggressive blend of the fuel, though it did not fail when the test was replicated with fuels containing no ethanol or a 10 percent blend. Other pump designs showed “statistically significant flow loss” with both E15 variants. The fuel level sender tests revealed three instances “of significant signal defects.”

According to CRC: “This study . . . has found that some fuel systems in modern vehicles survive testing in mid-blend ethanol fuels, while others will experience complete failures that would prevent operation.”

Mike Leister, a senior fuels policy director at Marathon Petroleum, and a member of CRC’s board, said the tests showed E15 caused signals from fuel level senders to “become disrupted or garbled,” with the result that “your tank can appear to be empty when it’s full or it can appear to be full when it’s empty.”

Because onboard diagnostic systems use information from the fuel level sensors, faulty data could suggest a leak and trigger a check engine light.

Greco said the end result of E15 damage to fuel systems could be anything from customer inconvenience to a complete fuel pump failure where an engine stops.

The U.S. oil industry has been waging a long fight against E15 and the 8-year-old biofuels mandate that underpins it. The renewable fuel standard requires refiners to blend steadily increasing amounts of ethanol and other alternatives into the nation’s transportation fuel supply, up to 36 billion gallons in 2022.

API, the industry’s leading trade group, has argued that the entire mandate should be tossed out, especially given the so-called “blend wall”: the practical limit on how much biofuel can be blended into the nation’s gasoline, given the relative rarity of E15 blends approved for new vehicles and the limit on 10 percent ethanol in the most commonly available gasoline.

Kristy Moore, vice president for technical services with the Renewable Fuels Association, said the CRC report has “zero real world correlation.” Among other problems, she said, the study ignored their own earlier 2009 findings that sulphur in gasoline — not ethanol — is a leading cause of fuel system problems, including malfunctions that cause incorrect gauge readings.

The analysis also used equipment from vehicles, at least three of which may have been subject to recalls for fuel system problems, Moore said. The study used parts from the 2007 Nissan Altima, 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier, 2004 Ford Focus, 2003 Nissan Maxima and the 2004 Ford Ranger. The report does not identify precisely which car parts failed, but the overlap suggests some of those devices were already predisposed to problems.

Bob Reynolds, president of Downstream Alternatives, questioned whether the test E15 blend included the same corrosion inhibitors that are added to the gasoline for commercial sale.

And given the selection of the vehicles used in the test, Reynolds said, the results can’t fairly be extrapolated for all of the cars on the road today.

“You can’t test a few systems . . . and try to scare the owners of the 270 million vehicles on the road today, about 68 percent of which are approved for (E15),” Reynolds said.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit rejected a challenge to the EPA’s decision to approve the E15 blend, after concluding that the API and food groups behind the suit did not have legal standing to press the case. The court specifically denied a request that it reconsider its 2-1 August decision that the trade groups could not prove they had suffered specific damage from the E15 approval.

Greco said API may seek to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.