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Energy Tomorrow Radio: Episode - 115 E15 and Your Car

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted August 18, 2010

In today's episode, I interview Al Jessel, co-chair of the Coordinating Research Council (CRC) about a plan being considered by the EPA which would raise the amount of ethanol in gasoline from 10 percent to 15 or 20 percent. Use the audio player below to listen to information about the article and follow along with the show notes. I hope you find the podcast informative.

00:16 If you fill your own gasoline tank, you've probably seen a sign on the pump indicating the fuel could contain up to 10 percent ethanol. Ethanol, which in this country is made primarily from corn, is a fuel additive that boosts octane and changes other properties of the fuel. Most engines are designed for E10, gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol, but at levels higher than that, it can become problematic. Still, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering plans to raise the ethanol concentration in gasoline. A few years ago, automakers and oil companies formed the Coordinating Research Council (CRC) to conduct research on fuels and vehicles. Recently, the CRC and others, including the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), began testing fuels such as E15 and E20, which contain 15 percent and 20 percent ethanol respectively. API sponsors an open meeting three times a year for all interested parties to exchange test results and other information concerning these "mid-level" ethanol blends. Along with an engineer from General Motors, Al Jessel, Chevron senior fuels policy advisor, serves as the group's co-chair. Welcome, Al.

01:33 Let's give our listeners information about what precisely the EPA is proposing to do with ethanol.

01:49 Mr. Jessel: First of all, you have to understand that there is a limit set by the EPA to the amount of ethanol that can be put in gasoline. This is the result from the so-called "gasohol" waiver that was issued by the EPA more than 30 years ago. What's happened is that a group of ethanol producers have recently petitioned the EPA to allow a higher level of ethanol in gasoline of 15 percent instead of the current limit of 10 percent. Under law, the EPA has to consider that petition and decide whether to grant it or not. If they do not grant it, gasoline will stay at the 10 percent ethanol limit, but if they do grant it, it can rise to 15 percent. That is the subject of EPA testing that is currently underway and is trying to back the claim of the petitioners.

02:42 Al, your research has also looked at what happens when ethanol levels are raised to 20 percent, correct?

02:48 Mr. Jessel: That's correct. What we have done is to try to start with the highest level of ethanol that one could contemplate putting in gasoline and using it in an engine currently on the road. We start with E20, and if E20 doesn't show any problems then we feel as though we can safely say that one could use E15 in a car without any particular problem. You have to understand that because the ethanol limit has been limited to 10 percent that cars and off-road vehicle engines have all been designed to work with no more than 10 percent. The testing to show whether E15 will work is tricky and needs to be undertaken with care, because you can't really test every vehicle. You have to be careful to choose a vehicle population that is really representative of what people will experience with their own cars.

03:50 What has your research shown so far?

03:53 Mr. Jessel: What happens when you add ethanol to gasoline is that it tends to lean out the mixtures. Meaning that there is a little too much oxygen because ethanol brings oxygen into the gasoline. When that happens in an older engine, combustion temperatures tend to rise and the combustion temperatures lead to higher exhaust temperatures. The emissions control equipment in most cars is in the exhaust system. Newer cars, however, adjust to a certain extent for that extra ethanol. So the question is since cars were designed for E10, will they adjust well enough for E15? It should be understood that there are categories of vehicles that are not going to be able to use more than 10 percent and the EPA acknowledges that. The EPA is proposing to waive just a portion of the vehicles, not the entire vehicle and engine population. The portion would be those vehicles that have sophisticated emissions control equipment so that there would be a chance they will be sufficiently adjusted to tolerate the higher ethanol blends. The rest of the vehicles, vehicles built before 2000 and off-road vehicles, are not being considered for use of E15. This is because off-road vehicles generally don't have any emissions control equipment that helps adjust the air fuel ratio that ethanol tends to change, and while some cars before model year 2001 have this equipment, it is not very sophisticated. The concern is that they might not adjust well enough for E15 and be able to use it without any kind of problem.

05:57 It sounds like your saying that the EPA is considering having service stations installing yet another pump so you could have E10 available for some cars and then E15 or E20 available for newer cars. Is that correct?

06:20 Mr. Jessel: All the EPA really has to do under this petition is to allow this new fuel to be used. Of course it is up to the oil companies and retailers to decide whether to offer the fuel. The waiver that the EPA is proposing to offer is only step one in the process. The next steps are going to be up to the fuel supplier and retailer to make sure everything else that needs to be done is done properly before we actually market the fuel. There are a number of steps, some are regulatory and legislative. More testing needs to be done before most oil companies would feel comfortable marketing the fuel. Some of the issues that are being tested within the CRC are issues that the EPA does not appear to need in order to grant the waiver. The EPA is primarily concerned with emissions control equipment so the testing they are sponsoring, along with the DOE, is primarily interested in looking at the impact on emissions. However, our customers see other things besides emissions changes when engines don't run properly. For instance, the check engine light can come on if the fuel used is not what the engine was designed for, or it could not come on when it really should be on. There could be excess engine wear. There could be some fuel system compatibility problems. The components in a fuel system are not designed for E10 any more than the rest of the components of the car. A lot of the testing that CRC is now doing is also looking at the issues that a customer would face. We are especially interested as an oil industry in that because we are the entity which deals directly with a customer in supplying fuels. That particular testing is ongoing but it is going to take maybe another year to complete. The fact of the matter is that the EPA has been asked to act on this waiver originally by this summer. They have put it off for a few months and they are talking about completing their actions on the waiver in two parts. Part one, earlier this fall and part two, later in the fall. We believe that this is premature. Much of the emissions testing being conducted by the DOE may be complete by then, but there is some ongoing emissions testing that the CRC is sponsoring. Then there are these other issues that I just mentioned that concern consumers and that testing won't be done by the time the EPA is talking about issuing the waiver.

09:26 It seems to me that the automakers should be concerned about this, if for instance, consumers end up putting fuel in their vehicles with a higher concentration of ethanol than is suggested in the warranty. What kind of a problem does that create for automakers?

09:44 Mr. Jessel: That is a question that is placed to the automakers, but given the CRC is a joint operation between the automakers and the oil industry, we have a lot of contact with automakers. Given that they are pitching a fair amount of time and money into the CRC program I think that is a pretty good indication they have some similar concerns. They are going to be pressed to honor warranties for a fuel their cars were not necessarily designed for and of course there is the whole issue of all the cars that aren't covered by warranties. We all have to be concerned about those, not just the auto companies.

10:29 Ethanol is corrosive. I have heard that for a number of years. Is there also research being done on how gasoline with higher ethanol levels might affect gasoline pumps, storage tanks and other parts of the gasoline delivery system?

10:43 Mr. Jessel: Yes, of course. API in conjunction with the DOE is conducting a rather comprehensive look at all the equipment that will come into contact with a higher level of ethanol in the gasoline. All the components you just mentioned are being examined to make sure they are compatible. To the extent they are not, those components will have to be replaced before E15 could be marketed and those that are compatible won't have to be. It is going to be part of the many things that would have to be done should a waiver be issued, and before E15 can be marketed.

11:26 It sounds like this comes down to a very complicated and potentially costly issue. You have research that's ongoing, but it won't be finished before the EPA expects to issue a waiver, correct?

11:41 Mr. Jessel: That's the implication we are getting from the EPA which is a little bit surprising to us, but we can't deny that that's the message they are sending.

11:52 What do you think the EPA should do at this point when there are still so many unknowns about the operations of the cars, the concerns about consumers and so on?

12:02 Mr. Jessel: It is a little hard to understand the hurry that the EPA is in. First of all, the petitioners for E15 didn't supply a lot of the data that the EPA really needed to make a judgment. The simple fact is that the research is ongoing. We have a very nice program set up with the auto companies which is going to take roughly another year to complete. It seems to us that the EPA should wait until that program is done. Then, if the program shows no harm, the waiver is a logical outcome. However, they do need to wait until the research is done because it could show there is a problem. And if there is a problem then the EPA should not issue a waiver. The key to all of this is to wait until the research is done.

12:55 Al Jessel, thank you so much for explaining this issue to us. Clearly we will be hearing a lot more about this in the very near future. Thank you for joining us today on Energy Tomorrow Radio.

13:06 Al Jessel: Thank you so much Jane.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jane Van Ryan was formerly senior communications manager and new media advisor at the American Petroleum Institute (API), where she wrote blog posts and produced podcasts and videos. Before coming to API, Jane managed communications for a large science and engineering corporation, and for a top-tier research and engineering university. A few years ago, you might have seen her in your living room when she delivered the news on television. Jane officially retired from API in 2011 and now freelances as an independent communications consultant when not gardening at her farm in Virginia.