The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

The Growing Case Against E15 and the Renewable Fuel Standard

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted January 29, 2013

There’s new research showing E15 (15 percent ethanol) fuel could damage vehicles, potentially stranding motorists and/or saddling them with expensive repair bills – one of a number of reasons the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) should be scrapped.

Following on a report last spring that said E15 could damage engines and cars and trucks, the Coordinating Research Council (CRC) has a new study that found E15 can mess up fuel pump systems and fuel measurement systems, potentially affecting “millions and millions” of vehicles, Bob Greco, API downstream and industry operations director, said in a conference call with reporters. Greco:

“This additional E15 testing, completed this month, has identified an elevated incidence of fuel pump failures, fuel system component swelling and impairment of fuel measurement systems in some of the vehicles tested.  E15 could cause erratic and misleading fuel gauge readings or cause faulty check-engine light illuminations. It also could cause critical components to break and stop fuel flow to the engine. Failure of these components could result in breakdowns that leave consumers stranded on busy roads and highways. Fuel system component problems did not develop in the CRC tests when either E10 or E0 (fuel) was used.”

Basically, ethanol causes components in fuel pump systems and fuel-level senders to swell, damaging them. Among a number of potential problems, the fuel pump could stop sending fuel from the gasoline tank to the engine and/or systems that monitor fuel levels could be impaired, sending garbled messages to the vehicle’s diagnostics center – throwing on the dreaded “check engine” light. Risks to motorists range from inconvenience to being stranded on the side of the road with an engine starved of fuel due to a seized-up fuel pump – plus potential repair costs.

Greco said the value of vehicles that could be affected could run into the billions of dollars. At the same time, fuel systems for which E15 wasn’t approved – including those in pre-2001 vehicles, lawn equipment, boats, motorcycles and snowmobiles – also could be damaged from misfueling by consumers who are misinformed or confused about E15 use.

At the root of these problems is EPA’s decision to approve E15 before sufficient testing was completed, because of RFS mandates. Greco:

“Why did EPA move forward prematurely? Part of the answer may be the need to raise the permissible concentration level of ethanol so that greater volumes could be used, as required by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard. Most gasoline sold today is an E10 blend, but rising volume requirements under the law can’t be met much longer without going to higher blends.”

Greco said the oil and natural gas industry supports renewable fuels, but he stressed that unworkable aspects of the RFS could impact the public’s acceptance of them. The RFS’ flaws were sharply underscored last week when a federal court rejected EPA’s 2012 mandate – under the RFS – that refiners use cellulosic biofuel, which isn’t commercially available. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that EPA’s insistence that refiners use a non-existent fuel – and then be fined for not using the non-existent fuel “is the sort of thing that led to the Protestant Reformation.” Check this post by energy blogger Robert Rapier, in which he likens the cellulosic mandate to a requirement that automakers sell unicorns. (Which, by the way, also don’t exist.) Greco:

“When Congress passed the (RFS), it could not know it was creating this problem. Today we know.  The answer is to repeal the RFS before it puts millions of vehicles and many motorists at risk. … The world has changed since the RFS was enacted in 2007. Consumer demand for fuels has dropped, while domestic supplies of crude oil have grown dramatically because of the revolution in shale oil and natural gas development in the U.S. This has reduced imports, one of the stated purposes of the RFS. … EPA should pull back its decision on E15. The CRC research shows millions of America’s vehicles aren’t ready for it, and the government should not expose consumers to this problem.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.