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Apples, Oranges and Playing the NASCAR Card

Bob Greco

Bob Greco
Posted September 10, 2013

Two recent news items:  First, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that U.S. gasoline consumption was about 50,000 barrels per day lower during the first half of 2013 compared to 2012 – despite an improving economy and slightly lower prices at the pump this summer. Second, Carl Edwards won NASCAR’s Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond, Va., over the weekend. What they have in common is … ethanol.

eia_gasoline_consumptionAs EIA’s chart shows, U.S. gasoline consumption has been trending downward since summer 2010. Ethanol enters into the picture because decreased gasoline consumption is one factor in the approach of the refining “blend wall” – the point where the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) requires more ethanol to be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply than is needed to give it the maximum 10 percent ethanol content for which most cars and trucks on the road were designed. Studies have shown higher ethanol content fuel like E15 can damage engines and fuel systems in vehicles that weren’t designed to use it. Besides potentially stranding individual motorists and/or sticking them with major repair bills, the RFS’ increasing ethanol mandates could impact the overall economy.

NASCAR? Well, ethanol backers often say that if NASCAR vehicles can safely use higher ethanol content fuels, then so can the U.S. vehicle fleet – though the first thing you notice in photos from the Richmond International Raceway on Saturday is that there were no family cars, SUVs or pickup trucks in the Federated Auto Parts 400 field.

We’ve addressed the NASCAR argument before, but check out this blog post by Dave Juday that delves into more of the details, starting with a simple set of questions: Are the engines in professional stock car racing a fair proxy for the engines in the family vehicle and for family driving conditions, and is the fuel used in NASCAR really the same as E15? Let’s start with what Juday writes about the engines:

The engines are different.  Consider, the top selling model in the US for 2011 and 2012 was the Ford F-Series pick-up truck which come with V-6 or V-8 engines that range from 302 to 360 horsepower respectively.  For passenger cars, the top seller in 2012 was the Toyota Camry.  The Camry has two engine choices – a 2.5 liter four-cylinder which produces 178 horsepower, or a 3.5 liter that has 268 horsepower.  The average NASCAR engine makes about 750 horsepower.

Now driving conditions:

Driving conditions, of course, are different.  NASCAR winners so far in the 2013 season have logged average speeds of 153 miles per hour at the Brickyard in Indianapolis, 144 miles per hour at Michigan International Speedway, and 129 miles per hour at Pocono Speedway.  Is that a model for the average morning stop-and-go, engine idling commute?

And NASCAR fuel vs. E15:

The fuel is different.  NASCAR switched to e-15 in 2011 and uses a version that has a 98 octane rating.  Retail e-15 has an octane rating of 90.  Regular grade gasoline available commercially has an octane rating of 87; premium grade is 93.

Juday writes there are other key differences. These include the way commercial E15 is blended vs. the way NASCAR blends it and the specialized storage and fueling equipment NASCAR uses to handle higher ethanol content fuel. Juday also notes that when NASCAR tested E15 in its engines all of the engines were the same, and those engines were set up to capitalize on certain E15 properties. When the Energy Department tested E15 – data EPA ultimately used to approve E15 use – it was testing for exhaust and emissions standards, he writes, and was applied across a wide range of engine types. Juday concludes:

As the American Automobile Association notes, engine life, fuel pump performance and other factors are risks from e-15 that the federal testing was not structured to measure.  Furthermore, the group reports that only five percent of all auto warranties cover the use of e-15.  That leaves a huge gap compared to the 50 percent of vehicles EPA says may legally use the fuel especially considering the warning label on the pump may not be an adequate protection from misfueling. Success with race car engines notwithstanding, there are many potential issues for everyday drivers and their vehicles that the race to commercial adaptation of e-15 pose.   The yellow flag for caution should be waved until these issues are cleared.

The RFS is broken and should be repealed. Pushing more higher-content ethanol into the fuel supply is a talking point, not a serious response to the “blend wall.” Continued implementation of the RFS’ increasing ethanol mandates could impact consumers and the economy at large. Let’s recognize that a number of the circumstances that existed when the RFS was created no longer exist, that the RFS has become unworkable and should be repealed.