Boaters split over ethanol’s effect on engines

Source: Marc Heller, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, May 12, 2016

For years, the farm lobby has been the loudest voice in the debate over ethanol mandates, but the fight also is heating up offshore — with recreational boaters.

Potential damage to outboard engines from overly rich ethanol blends has emerged as part of the discussion, giving boating-heavy states such as Florida and Michigan a greater stake in the future of the renewable fuel standard.

Unlike farmers, however, boaters aren’t unified on ethanol, and that’s complicating the debate. Although many worry about engine damage — a message that gas and oil companies that oppose ethanol mandates are happy to spread — others say ethanol boosts engine performance and runs cleaner than gasoline.

“I’d be surprised to find a lot of boaters who thought it was a good thing,” said Mike Anderson, a boater on Lake Ontario in Oswego, N.Y., and a staff member of the American Boating Association. “To me, I don’t see the sense of it.”

Anderson isn’t alone. Recreational boating organizations, as well as companies that make and sell boats, have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars a year into the fight against ethanol mandates. The National Marine Manufacturers Association alone spent $340,000 in 2014 lobbying for legislation eliminating the fuel mandate, the Center for Responsive Politics reported. The association spent $400,000 in 2015 lobbying on that and other issues.

In 2015, ethanol critics reeled in star power, too; comedian Jay Leno attacked ethanol in a story in Autoweek, saying it’s bad for older engines — even though he had written articles elsewhere raving about his high-ethanol-burning 2006 Corvette.

Ethanol supporters are fighting back, lining up boaters to praise ethanol’s strength as an octane booster and a water absorber in gas tanks, and to dispute its reputation for damaging small engines.

“I think there are a lot of myths,” said Keith Holmes, a marine racing technician and owner of CK Motorsports in Nunica, Mich., who spoke at a Capitol Hill panel discussion yesterday organized by the Renewable Fuels Association.

As long as boaters use fuel stabilizers and store ethanol fuels properly, ethanol blends can boost engine life by as much as 50 percent, said Holmes, who has used blends as rich as 90 percent ethanol for offshore race teams.

“Any blend works,” Holmes said.

Standard fuel is 10 percent ethanol, or E10. That is commonly used in boats and, ethanol advocates say, is acceptable for all boat engines and widely accepted among engine manufacturers. It meets the renewable fuel standard by which U.S. EPA dictates how much alternative fuel must be mixed into gasoline to reduce air pollution.

“There is a myth out there that 10% ethanol is not good for marine engines, but we have been operating for over 20 years and have not had any issues with it whatsoever,” Vernon Barfield, former vice president and technical chairman of the National Boat Racing Association, said in a flier prepared by the Renewable Fuels Association. “There are absolutely no problems running on 10 percent ethanol.”

The disagreement becomes sharper as blends reach E15 or higher.

“We still don’t know how and when E15 will be offered for sale, or if it will ever be sold in your local marina. We do know that you don’t want it in your marine engine, as the experts are unanimous on the subject,” said Tom Burden, who writes a boating advice column on the website of West Marine Inc., a boating supply company based in Watsonville, Calif.

The age of boats also plays into the debate. Critics of ethanol say older engines cannot handle ethanol. Older fiberglass fuel tanks can break down over time, Anderson said. But boaters at the RFA briefing said they’ve used E10 for a decade or more with boats made in the 1970s, with no damage.

The dispute brews as the White House Office of Management and Budget reviews EPA’s proposed blending requirements for 2017 under the renewable fuel standard in advance of their release. A final decision on blending requirements is due in November, although proposed levels will be announced in the next few weeks.

The long-term future of the RFS — and the boating industry’s role in shaping it — remains to be seen. Critics of the RFS, including the American Petroleum Institute, have sued EPA over the program and continue to press Congress for its repeal. Legislation proposing a repeal hasn’t gone far, and some lawmakers are seeking changes to the program instead.

Congressional caucuses on sporting and boating have sponsored policy briefings featuring the National Marine Manufacturers Association; a contact in the office of Congressional Boating Caucus Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.) referred a call yesterday to the NMMA.

The NMMA and other groups yesterday said they’re backing legislation (H.R. 5180) by Reps. Bill Flores (R-Texas), Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and others to prevent EPA from mandating ethanol blends greater than 9.7 percent.

The Renewable Fuels Association, Growth Energy and farm organizations such as the National Corn Growers Association are asking Congress to preserve the program or even to raise the amount of ethanol for blending.

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