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E15 fears: More ethanol in gasoline is bad news for power equipment, critics say

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 7:53 PM

It seems like a great idea: Increase the amount of renewable ethanol from grain at the gas station and decrease America's reliance on foreign oil.

But a push to add another 50 percent to the ethanol content of some automobile fuel has opened a barrel of worms. Automakers say they don't know how it will affect their cars; power-equipment and boat manufacturers are predicting calamitous mis-fueling; and gas station owners are looking at a slew of legal and logistical impediments.

The Environmental Protection Agency has approved a request from the ethanol industry to allow ethanol content in a gallon of gas to climb from 10 to 15 percent. The waiver to the Clean Air Act to permit so-called E15 fuel applies only to cars and light trucks made since model year 2007, but the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute and manufacturers argue that once gas stations sell it, consumers will mis-fuel their power equipment, with terrible results.

The availability of E15 could produce "a train wreck in the marketplace," said the institute's attorney, Bill Guerry.

Opponents of E15 are considering a concerted legal action to try to reverse the waiver. "We don't know the long-term effects of E15 on automobiles," said Gloria Bergquist of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "There's a sweep of studies underway now, and we had urged EPA to wait until next year when more of these studies would be concluded."

In approving the waiver Oct. 13, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said "thorough testing has shown that E15 does not harm emissions control equipment in newer cars and light trucks."

For veteran power-equipment guys such as Mick Matuskey, the prospect of E15 entering the fuel stream is vexing. Matuskey, co-owner of Power and Lawn Equipment in Gaithersburg, has been in the business for 44 years and remembers when snowblowers, chain saws and mowers lasted much longer.

"You're getting half of the life out of the product today compared to 30, 40 years ago," he said.

Cheaper components and higher running temperatures are taking their toll. But critics say a 15 percent ethanol blend would shorten engine life more and make equipment prone to fuel leaks and fire hazards. Apart from causing engines to run hotter, ethanol fuel eats away at rubber components.

"E15 is going to make fuel lines on older equipment turn to mush a lot faster," Matuskey said. "You've got spillage and environmental issues as well as fire and safety issues."

Prentiss Searles of the American Petroleum Institute said, "Having seals fail on your backpack blower isn't a good thing, because you've got a gas tank sitting on your back."

Old technologies

Tools such as trimmers, mowers and blowers generally use engine technologies long abandoned by carmakers: air cooling, carburetion and, often, two-cycle engines fueled by an oil-gas mix . Ethanol blends cause engines to run leaner and hotter - modern auto engines can adjust for that; lawn mowers and chain saws cannot.

Today's gas-pump blend, ubiquitous and known as E10, pushes power equipment to the limit, said Kris Kiser, the petroleum group's executive vice president. With E15, "our machines fail," he said.

The institute says its members can develop machines that will run on more ethanol, just as they are making them less polluting. But there are as many as 200 million existing pieces of equipment now in jeopardy, used by homeowners, landscapers, foresters, companies and institutions.

Stephanie Dreyer, spokeswoman for the ethanol coalition that requested the waiver, Growth Energy, said labels at the pump, to be required by the EPA, will explicitly direct consumers to the right type of fuel. "There are two types of diesel on the road now, and they are indicated by a label," she said. "And as far as we know it hasn't been a problem."

The use of E15 in cars, she said, "will accelerate the use of renewable fuel, increase energy security, create jobs, reduce transportation costs and improve the environment." Dreyer said it will also encourage investment in the next generation of ethanol made from a variety of plant materials.

Cathy Milbourn, an EPA spokeswoman, says the agency is not advocating E15 but simply responding to a waiver request under the clean-air statute.

The waiver covers about one-fifth of the vehicles on the road. The agency is waiting for further engine emission tests by the Energy Department before deciding whether to extend approval of E15 for cars built since 2001.

If the agency extends the waiver back to model-year-2001 vehicles, E15 would be approved in more than half the automobiles in the country, a percentage that would grow as older cars are scrapped.

Power-equipment makers say consumers filling a portable gas can while also fueling their vehicles are not going to pay attention to a sign telling them to use E15 only in approved automobiles. They also speculate that gasoline retailers will make more money from E15 than E10, and if it becomes legal for 54 percent of automobiles, "at some point there is likely to be a wholesale transfer over to a majority fuel," Guerry said.

In time, E10 may no longer be available, at which point, Guerry said, "people are going to be stuck filling their portable containers with E15 no matter how effective the mis-fueling regulation is."

Other problems

Equipment makers are also worried that the ethanol, which absorbs water, will make the fuel unstable and destructive to engines when seasonable equipment is stored for months on end. Another problem, Kiser said, is that the faster engine idling speeds will cause machines with centrifugal clutches, such as chain saws, to engage blades at rest.

For gas station owners, the waiver has raised its own set of questions and concerns. Tanks, pipes and pumps must be listed by Underwriters Laboratories, an independent product-safety testing organization, for E15 to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, as well as contractual obligations with insurers and others.

"The existing infrastructure is not certified," said Tim Columbus, counsel to the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America. "Somebody has got to go through all the hoops to get the fuel registered, and then you have to figure out what are you going to do with the existing infrastructure. This isn't going to happen in 10 minutes."

John Eichberger, an executive with the other major gas station trade group, the National Association of Convenience Stores, said some existing tanks are certified for E15 but others aren't.

"The bigger issue is the pipes from the tanks to the dispensers and the materials used to connect them, the gaskets, glues and seals," he said. As with replacing underground storage tanks, "you would have to crack concrete to get to them. Add a decimal point to the price."

With the extended waiver, E15 is "more likely to be assimilated into the marketplace, and mis-fueling will be more likely," Kiser said. And while the EPA may permit E15 in older vehicles, using the fuel might still void the manufacturer's warranty, he said. He predicted "a challenge for the consumer."

Congress is considering a bill that would shield gas retailers from liability suits for mis-fueled engines.

Another concern of Kiser's members in the American Petroleum Institute is that E15 will be cheaper to retailers and that eventually E10 will no longer be available. They have asked the EPA to mandate its continued sale.

Meanwhile, equipment makers, as well as retailers such as Matuskey, are trying to deal with the uncertainties spawned by the E15 waiver. If and when it arrives, "it'll have a major impact on our industry," he said.

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