The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

The Science is Clear on E15

Bob Greco

Bob Greco
Posted March 12, 2013

We expect attacks from ethanol boosters over E15 gasoline, fuel that contains 15 percent ethanol, because their stated mission is to promote more ethanol use.  But, unfortunately for them, the science is clear; E15 has been shown to cause damage in some engines and fuel systems.

Pointing this out, citing tests by the Coordinating Research Council (CRC), an organization that’s the gold standard in terms of automotive research, has drawn some fantastic claims, most recently that the E10 (10 percent ethanol) “blend wall” – the point at which there isn’t enough E10 being sold to accommodate all of the ethanol mandated by federal law – doesn’t actually exist, more on that below.

We’ve addressed these attacks in the past, and shown that concern for E15’s potential harmful effects on cars, light-duty trucks and other equipment (such as lawnmowers and snow blowers) is grounded in careful, credible research. That’s not just us talking – but a chorus of others who’ve looked at the data and come to the same conclusion – one that leaves supporters of the current unworkable renewable fuels standard pretty much on its own.

Auto manufacturers:

Honda: “Authorizing the sale of E15 … for vehicles built after 2001 presents an obvious problem for auto manufacturers – vehicle engines were not designed or built to accommodate the higher concentrations of ethanol. … Honda products were designed, built and certified to operate on E10 and below. Use of higher blends could compromise the vehicle’s warranty.”

Chrysler: “While Chrysler has been a strong advocate of renewable fuels, we have concerns about the harmful effects of E15 in engines and fuel systems that were not designed for use of that fuel. … Prior to the EPA’s decision to allow E15, we had requested that the Agency defer from making any decisions regarding higher ethanol blends for conventional vehicles until existing testing programs have been completed and the data fully evaluated. … We are not confident that our vehicles will not be damaged from the use of E15. … The warranty information provided to our customers specifically notes that use of blends beyond E10 will void the warranty.”

BMW: “BMW Group engines and fuel supply systems can be damaged by misfueling with E15. … Damage appears in the form of very rapid corrosion of fuel pump parts, rapid formation of sludge in the oil pan, plugged filters, and other damage that is very costly to the vehicle owner. As you would expect, engines and fuel systems already on the road cannot be retroactively designed to be compatible with ethanol blends higher than used for the original design.  Our warranty states that it does not cover malfunctions caused by use of fuels containing more than 10% ethanol. … We anticipate that the owners of vehicles damaged by higher levels of ethanol will be frustrated, notwithstanding the warnings contained in our warranty booklets.”

Toyota: “Moving from E10 to E15 represents a 50% increase in the alcohol content of the fuel compared to what the vehicles were designed to accept. Unfortunately, the data considered in connection with EPA’s E15 waivers does not adequately determine the effect of this change on Toyota’s legacy fleet. Accordingly, Toyota cannot recommend the use of fuel with greater than E10 (10% ethanol) for Toyota vehicles currently on the road, except for the (flex fuel vehicles).”

Ford: “An approach in which fuel specifications are changed abruptly, and the new fuel is allowed to be used on vehicles that were not designed for it, is likely to lead to undesirable outcomes for consumers, the new fuel and the legacy vehicles. … We remain concerned that the legacy fleet, operating on a fuel the vehicles were not designed for, will not meet customer expectations for quality, durability, performance and fuel economy, as well as legal requirements to meet emissions standards and onboard diagnostic regulations. Efforts to increase renewable fuel use must be carried out in a way that does not create undue risks and problems for existing vehicles on the road.”

Check the link and note similar concerns expressed by Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Hyundai, Nissan, Kia and Mazda. Here’s Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an association representing a dozen automakers: 

“Clearly many vehicles on the road today are at risk of harm from E15. The unknowns concern us greatly, since only a fraction of vehicles have been tested to determine their tolerance to E15. Automakers did not build these vehicles to handle the more corrosive E15 fuel. That’s why we urged EPA to wait for the results of further testing.”

American Automobile Association (AAA)

In House testimony last month, AAA’s Robert L. Darbelnet said consumers could pay the price in repair bills and inconvenience because E15 was approved for use by EPA before getting the full picture on the fuel’s potential harmful effects:

“Our concern currently is not that E15 should never be brought to market, our concern is that consumers do not know whether they should put E15 in their vehicle or not, and there is a huge difference of opinion between the EPA, which says you can use it in any vehicle manufactured after 2001, and the people who actually make the cars, who say that it shouldn’t be used in virtually 95 percent of the vehicles that are on the roads today. … Allowing the sale of E15 at this point is both premature and irresponsible. … AAA is not opposed to ethanol. We are concerned with the way that this one particular blend has been brought to market and is being sold to consumers.”

American Motorcyclist Association (AMA)

At the same House hearing AMA’s Wayne Allard, a former U.S. senator, said motorcycle engines could be especially prone to damage from E15:

“The American Motorcyclist Association believes extensive independent testing needs to be done before E15 becomes more widely available. The key for the AMA and our members is that E15 must be proven safe for motorcycle and ATV engines. To the best of our knowledge, E15 is not approved for use in any original-equipment motorcycles or ATVs. In fact, its use can void many manufacturers’ warranties.”

California Air Resources Board (ARB)

In a letter to the AMA, California’s air regulator wrote:

“Please be advised that E15 is not approved for sale in California, and if ARB chooses to allow E15 as a transportation fuel, it would take several years to complete the vehicle testing and rule development necessary to introduce a new transportation fuel into California’s market.”

Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)

GMA Executive Vice President for Government Affairs Louis Finkel, talking about the effect of using food agriculture to produce ethanol for fuel:

“Implementation of the RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard) has had a profound negative impact on the economy and the structure of markets in energy, agricultural commodities and food manufacturing.  The application of the RFS to allow E15 into the market will only exacerbate a situation that is already having a negative impact on consumers and the economy.”

The point is clear: While ethanol is useful in fuel blending – for enhancing octane and other attributes – and while refiners would use it without the federal mandate, a 50 percent increase in ethanol content in fuel (10 percent to 15 percent) could damage millions of vehicles in the current U.S. fleet, said Mike Leister, senior fuels advisor for Marathon Oil and CRC board member.

EPA approved E15 for use on the basis of an Energy Department catalyst study, which focused on emissions control, not on the impact of higher levels of ethanol on engine wear and fuel pump systems. Leister, in House testimony:

“EPA did their analysis and it appeared that they were under a tremendous amount of pressure to come up with some answers and as a result the more we informed them that there was more research to be done and more timely, the less interested they were in hearing about that.”

Meanwhile, the E10 “blend wall” is quite real. There’s simply not enough E10 gasoline demand to absorb all of the ethanol mandated by the RFS. API’s Kyle Isakower, addressing an EPA field hearing last week in Michigan:

“The increasing price of renewable fuel credits is a clear indication that refiners have breached the E10 blend wall this year. According to OPIS, corn ethanol (credits) averaged 2 to 3 cents each in 2012, and this week traded at 75 cents per (credit). This sudden, added cost of producing gasoline and diesel fuel could have profound impacts on the marketplace, potentially restricting fuel imports and encouraging fuel exports. …  This is just the tip of the iceberg, and the negative economic consequences are bound to get worse unless EPA acts to address the blend wall.”

Since Isakower testified, the price of RIN credits has jumped even further, now over $1.00 per gallon of ethanol.  Certainly, these are facts the ethanol lobby doesn’t want to hear, that it doesn’t want to affect mandates for increasing ethanol use under the RFS; that it doesn’t want to affect E15’s acceptance by Americans. But they must. E15 shouldn’t be advanced into the marketplace and into vehicles that weren’t designed to use it to help satisfy unworkable provisions under the RFS.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob Greco is group director of downstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute. With 21 years of experience, Bob directs activities related to refining, pipeline, marketing, and fuels issues. He has managed exploration and production activities, policy analysis, climate change issues, marine transportation, refining, gasoline and jet fuel production issues and Clean Air Act implementation efforts. Before coming to API, Bob was an environmental engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with expertise in automotive emission control technologies. He has a M.S. degree in environmental engineering from Cornell University and a B.A. in biology from Colgate University.