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The debate over E15

Monday, January 3, 2011 - 01:00
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The EPA's apparent decision to allow use of 15 percent ethanol in late model cars has catalyzed auto manufacturer unhappiness. The prospect of model year 2007 and later cars using E15 worries Detroit and its foreign counterparts with regard to current warranties, which very well might be voided by use of E15. If catalytic converter or other emission system problems were not covered under warranties, that could mean a potential opening for aftermarket retailers. Looked at from a different angle, if E15 becomes more widely available, that might open the door to the sale of aftermarket products built around the new fuel.

The EPA published a proposed rule in November in response to an application submitted on March 6, 2009 by Growth Energy and 54 ethanol manufacturers. This application sought a waiver for ethanol-gasoline blends of up to 15 percent volume of ethanol. Gasoline has been blended with 10 percent ethanol for some time, and new car warranties accommodate E10.

Then in June of 2010, Archer Daniels Midland Company asked the EPA to allow E12 for all cars, reasoning that the agency, if it did approve E15, would do so only for newer models. In fact, when the EPA published its proposed rule on Nov. 4, 2010, it offered to make E15 legal only for post-2007 model years (MY). For cars made in 2001-2006, the agency walked a tightrope. It said it was "deferring" a decision on those years, but it was not proposing a prohibition against use of E15 in those cars either. It will prohibit E15 in MY2000 cars and older.

 

There have been any number of studies on the effect of E15 (and even E20) on motor vehicles of varying ages. The problem is that the studies can be both inconclusive and contradictory. The Renewable Fuels Association boasts a study by Ricardo, Inc., an internationally recognized automotive engineering firm that used EPA’s own methodology to evaluate the likely effects of using E15 in vehicles MY2000 and older. The study found no adverse effect.

The American Petroleum Institute (API), the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and individual auto manufacturers believe there are too many unanswered questions about the effect of E15 on auto emission systems. Consumer groups take the same position. Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety, in a July 2010 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, raised the possibility of catalyst burnout based on tests done by Department of Energy national laboratories.

API's Director of Downstream Operations, Bob Greco, said: "The EPA's s partial waiver is premature, lacks statutory authority and puts consumers at risk." The main potential trouble areas are valve and valve seat wear, bore wear and catalyst durability. There is also a concern that vehicles near their lean‐limit on E0 or E10 may log an OBD malfunction if operated on E15 or E20, even though within design tolerances.

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New car owner manuals are often strongly worded to recommend against using any gasoline-ethanol blend above 10 percent ethanol. For example, a Toyota explanation states: “Do not use gasohol other than stated here. Other gasohol may cause fuel system damage or vehicle performance problems.”

General Motors and Toyota officials didn't respond directly to a "what if" question about E15 and warranties. But a GM spokesman pointedly noted that although that company is owned in part by the U.S. government, if would not have to adopt EPA-friendly E15 policies vis-a-vis warranties. "The Administration has been true to its word and has been 'hands-off,' allowing us to make the business and commercial decisions that we believe are in the best interest of our business," he said.

The EPA's apparent decision to allow use of 15 percent ethanol in late model cars has catalyzed auto manufacturer unhappiness. The prospect of model year 2007 and later cars using E15 worries Detroit and its foreign counterparts with regard to current warranties, which very well might be voided by use of E15. If catalytic converter or other emission system problems were not covered under warranties, that could mean a potential opening for aftermarket retailers. Looked at from a different angle, if E15 becomes more widely available, that might open the door to the sale of aftermarket products built around the new fuel.

The EPA published a proposed rule in November in response to an application submitted on March 6, 2009 by Growth Energy and 54 ethanol manufacturers. This application sought a waiver for ethanol-gasoline blends of up to 15 percent volume of ethanol. Gasoline has been blended with 10 percent ethanol for some time, and new car warranties accommodate E10.

Then in June of 2010, Archer Daniels Midland Company asked the EPA to allow E12 for all cars, reasoning that the agency, if it did approve E15, would do so only for newer models. In fact, when the EPA published its proposed rule on Nov. 4, 2010, it offered to make E15 legal only for post-2007 model years (MY). For cars made in 2001-2006, the agency walked a tightrope. It said it was "deferring" a decision on those years, but it was not proposing a prohibition against use of E15 in those cars either. It will prohibit E15 in MY2000 cars and older.

 

There have been any number of studies on the effect of E15 (and even E20) on motor vehicles of varying ages. The problem is that the studies can be both inconclusive and contradictory. The Renewable Fuels Association boasts a study by Ricardo, Inc., an internationally recognized automotive engineering firm that used EPA’s own methodology to evaluate the likely effects of using E15 in vehicles MY2000 and older. The study found no adverse effect.

The American Petroleum Institute (API), the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and individual auto manufacturers believe there are too many unanswered questions about the effect of E15 on auto emission systems. Consumer groups take the same position. Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety, in a July 2010 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, raised the possibility of catalyst burnout based on tests done by Department of Energy national laboratories.

API's Director of Downstream Operations, Bob Greco, said: "The EPA's s partial waiver is premature, lacks statutory authority and puts consumers at risk." The main potential trouble areas are valve and valve seat wear, bore wear and catalyst durability. There is also a concern that vehicles near their lean‐limit on E0 or E10 may log an OBD malfunction if operated on E15 or E20, even though within design tolerances.

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