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Yeah, But What About Brazil?

Bob Greco

Bob Greco
Posted May 30, 2013

One of the frequent arguments from ethanol supporters is that the United States should simply follow the lead of Brazil and use a lot more ethanol in our fuel supply. Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden was full of praise for Brazil during remarks in Rio de Janeiro this week:

“You’re tapping your enormous natural resources, but also getting a greater share of your energy from clean and renewable energy sources than any other country in the world.  The rest of the world looks at you with envy, at the progress you’ve made. The hemisphere has much to learn from your experience.”

Underlying the praise is the implication that because Brazil has used ethanol blends of up to 25 volume percent for years with no negative effects on vehicle models that also are sold in the U.S., the U.S. could use those blends, too – reasoning often used by those beating the drum for increased use of E15 fuel. Let’s look at the facts on Brazil’s ethanol use – as well as a number of other arguments made by ethanol backers.

First, the Brazilians transitioned to an ethanol-powered society over the past 38 years. They converted vehicles – with the government distributing the technology to allow gasoline engines to run on ethanol – and equipped service stations with pumps and storage tanks that could handle fuel with higher ethanol content. Eventually, Brazilian auto manufacturers made vehicles compatible with mid-level ethanol blends, which, as you can see below in this table, required a number of significant modifications:

Ethanol Modifications Chart

(Note: The author of the article that contained the above table made the additional point that Brazil’s vehicle emission standards are less stringent than U.S. standards – meaning U.S. vehicles could need additional work and calibration to meet emission and durability standards.)

Meanwhile, David Sandalow, now the Energy Department’s assistant secretary for policy and international affairs, wrote an article for the Aspen Institute a few years ago cautioning against assumptions the U.S. could duplicate Brazil’s experience:

[w]e should be careful in drawing conclusions about rapid supply expansion from the Brazilian experience of the ‘70’s. Several subsidies provided by the Brazilian government in that era – such as infrastructure investments by a state-owned oil company – could not be duplicated in the U.S. today.

Let’s recognize that the Brazilians were systematic in moving to higher ethanol blends – converting vehicles, manufacturing new ones compatible with mid-level ethanol blends and building compatible fuel infrastructure over time. Contrast that with the approach that U.S. ethanol proponents and the EPA have taken: clearing the way to offer E15 for sale first while hoping that infrastructure and vehicles that can store, dispense and use the fuel safely in the near future. More on this below.

Now, let’s talk about NASCAR and ethanol – sort of a cousin to the Brazil-ethanol argument. Basically, if NASCAR vehicles can use E15, why can’t the U.S. passenger fleet?

Except for having four wheels and an engine, today’s NASCAR vehicles running on E15 have very little in common with cars owned by the average motorist. NASCAR engines are designed for racing and have been modified to be compatible with the sole-sourced, Sunoco-produced competition E15 racing fuel. The engine alone costs between $45,000 and $80,000 – significantly more than the cost of the engines in most consumers’ cars and trucks.

The fuel pumps on NASCAR vehicles are racing pumps that have been modified to specifically handle E15 and high-performance fuel-flow rates. Obviously, most consumer vehicles on the road have not undergone these modifications.  As research has shown, engines and fuel systems in today’s consumer vehicles can be harmed by E15. Furthermore, government research shows that E15 can adversely impact sensors that help control emissions on consumer vehicles. Conversely, race car emissions are uncontrolled and do not have similar sensors.

Additionally, NASCAR engines and fuel pump systems are highly stressed components that undergo intense maintenance, inspections and rebuilds after each race.  Unlike professional racecar drivers, typical car owners don’t have the time or money to get their cars serviced after each drive. So, to equate E15 miles accumulated on a NASCAR race vehicle with those driven on a typical vehicle sold to and operated by the average consumer is not a relevant comparison. In fact, it’s just silly.

Here’s another one from Big Ethanol: Why not just spend money and install retail equipment that can store and dispense E15?

The big question is who would pay for that? Corn growers and the Renewable Fuels Association certainly aren’t volunteering. No, Big Ethanol thinks oil companies should retrofit tens of thousands of service stations to use higher blends of ethanol. But as I explained here, oil companies don’t own 97 percent of gas stations. Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America said it best:

There are 700,000 gasoline dispensers in use in the U.S. and probably fewer than 5,000 have been certified for E15. There are over 3,000 miles of underground piping systems that have not been certified as safe for E15 as well. Who is going to pay to replace the dispensers and underground piping, which will cost some retailers hundreds of thousands of dollars? Over 94% of the gas stations in the U.S. are owned by independent businesses, and the major oil companies cannot order those retailers to replace dispensers and piping. The retail gasoline business is brutally competitive and the average retail outlet has an annual net profit of $40,000.

The National Association of Convenience Stores estimated it would cost nearly $10 billion industry-wide just for dispensers for ethanol blends higher than E10 (emphasis added):

Even with UL-approved retrofit kits in place by pump manufacturers such as Gilbarco and Wayne, the costs will still be significant at $4 billion — all before breaking concrete to change out underground storage tanks. The price tag could hit $20 billion for a product consumers aren’t even asking retailers to sell.

Big Ethanol points to EPA’s approval of E15 for the marketplace, but as I pointed out in this post and this post, despite what EPA says, the science is clear: E15 has been shown to cause damage in some engines and fuel systems.  For example, this warning from the owner’s manual of a model year 2013 Dodge Charger, makes it pretty clear that unlike EPA, Dodge does not believe all model year 2001 and newer vehicles can run safely on E15:

DO NOT use gasoline containing Methanol or gasoline containing more than 10% Ethanol. Use of these blends may result in starting and driveability problems, damage critical fuel system components, cause emissions to exceed the applicable standard, and/or cause the “Malfunction Indicator Light” to illuminate.

Neither does Porsche:

Do not use any fuels containing more than 10 percent ethanol by volume.

Or Nissan:

Do not use E-15 or E-85 fuel in your vehicle. Your vehicle is not designed to run on E-15 or E-85 fuel. Using E-15 or E-85 fuel in a vehicle not specifically designed for E-15 or E-85 fuel can adversely affect the emission control devices and systems of the vehicle. Damage caused by such fuel is not covered by the NISSAN new vehicle limited warranty.

Or Toyota:

Toyota Gas Cap

When it comes to determining what will and won’t harm my automobile, I tend to trust the folks who built it. The real question is, why don’t ethanol advocates acknowledge that the Renewable Fuel Standard - whose mandates would force more ethanol into gasoline than is safe - is irretrievably broken and should be repealed?

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.