E15 booster takes ‘Tugger’ on long drive in hopes of debunking ‘bogus’ engine study

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, October 4, 2013

Monte Shaw

Iowa Renewable Fuels Association Executive Director Monte Shaw and Tugger the Jeep arrived in Washington, D.C., after a 1,000-mile journey from Des Moines. Photo courtesy of Monte Shaw.

Monte Shaw left Des Moines, Iowa, around noon Tuesday in a maroon 2006 Jeep Commander nicknamed “Tugger” betting he wouldn’t get stranded on the side of the road between the Hawkeye State and Washington, D.C.

He didn’t. And to Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, his safe trip means that a study funded by the oil and auto industry warning that ethanol could damage car engines has been debunked.

“We’re out to say, ‘Hey, if those statements were true, why is this car running?'” Shaw said in a phone interview Tuesday somewhere on the road between Des Moines and Springfield, Ill. “If their testing was right and if how they’re portraying the test they selected was meaningful, then the car I’m sitting in right now would not be running. I’d be sitting out on the side of the road with my thumb out.”

Shaw and Iowa Renewable Fuels Association spokesman T.J. Page, who also made the 1,000-mile journey, arrived inside the Beltway in time for an event on Capitol Hill that began midmorning today. As they roll into town, they are releasing the results of testing that they say proves the often-cited study by the Coordinating Research Council relied on a meaningless parameter to demonstrate engine failure.

The CRC engine study from last spring concluded that two popular car engines failed when powered by gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol. Among engine damage found in the study: leaks, increased emissions and failure to meet valve clearance measurements specified by the equipment manufacturer (Greenwire, April 4, 2012).

The results, as well as a follow-up analysis that found fuel system damage linked to E15 use, have been widely used by critics at congressional hearings and in media campaigns to denounce EPA’s decision to increase the amount of ethanol allowed in gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent. The agency’s decision was too hasty and could leave drivers of millions of vehicles stranded on the side of the road, critics in the oil and auto industries have said.

When it was released, the CRC study sparked criticism both by the ethanol industry and by the Department of Energy, which conducted the testing that EPA used to approve gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol for use in cars with model years 2001 and newer.

Shaw, a vocal Iowa ethanol industry advocate, says his organization’s new test results and his trip to D.C. are definitive evidence showing that the study’s methodology was flawed.

“That test is bogus. The results they generated do not equate to any concerns whatsoever in the real world,” Shaw said.

The American Petroleum Institute, which helped fund the CRC study along with the auto industry, immediately criticized the Iowa ethanol group’s report, posting an open letter online that disputed its findings.

The association’s criticism of the 100-page CRC analysis centers on its use of leakage as one of five indicators of engine damage. Leakage is generally measured via a leakdown test, in which air is funneled into an engine cylinder and the amount of leakage is measured as a percentage.

The CRC test determined that leakage above 10 percent after 500 hours of a durability test indicated an engine failure; both vehicle engines that failed on E15 demonstrated leakage above that amount. A third vehicle exhibited problems with E15 but was eliminated from the final results because engine failure also occurred in the presence of pure gasoline.

Shaw says that the 10 percent level is an arbitrary figure that is exceeded daily by existing cars on the road that drive on E10, which currently makes up more than 90 percent of the gasoline used in passenger vehicles today. And he argues that the CRC cherry-picked cars that were more prone to failing one of the five indicators of engine failure.

In its test, the Iowa ethanol group said it set out to find “real world” cars that exceeded the leakage level on E10 and had no engines issues. The association collected the eight cars used in the test by emailing friends and members.

“Do you own a 2001 or newer non-FFV [flex-fuel vehicle] with more than 50,000 miles on it? And, if so, would you be willing to have us arrange for it to be tested for cylinder leakdown?” IRFA asked. “Finally, if your vehicle has a cylinder that exceeds the arbitrary CRC leakdown threshold, would you be willing to loan us the vehicle for a few days to drive it to Washington, DC and back?”

‘We pushed Tugger hard’

The Jeep Commander belongs to Ben Gleason of Ankeny, Iowa, who said he regularly fuels the tank with gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol and uses it to drive his 21-foot pontoon boat on weekends.

Local mechanics carried out leakdown tests; Chuck Hemmingson of Hemmingson Racing conducted the testing on the Jeep. The results showed that three of the eight cars exceeded the leakage level on E10 but have not had any engine issues. The Jeep at times registered more than a 50 percent leakage.

IRFA says that the results show the Coordinating Research Council test is inherently flawed.

“No issues. We pushed Tugger hard through the mountains and he did great,” Shaw said this morning.

Along the way here, Shaw and Page stopped in Springfield, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio. They met with corn farmers and other ethanol supporters. “Come drive a vehicle that Big Oil says won’t run,” the association is offering at its event today for members of Congress, Hill staff and media.

The CRC did not respond to a request for an interview about the study in question. But Bob Greco of the American Petroleum Institute said that concerns over the test’s use of leakage were overblown.

The test merely used the 10 percent leakage figure as an indicator that an engine teardown was necessary, said Greco, who directs downstream activities for API. Leakage, he said, was a sign that valve wear might be occurring with the higher levels of ethanol since ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline.

“What it was was a signal that we should tear down the engine and see if the engine experienced excessive wear. It wasn’t the final decision,” Greco said. “Ford looked at the Ford car. They looked at their own car and made the determination. Some cars were fine. So it’s not accurate to say that was a pass/fail determination.”

But in the spring of 2012, the Department of Energy also raised concerns about the CRC’s use of leakage as a determinant of engine failure.

“This is not a standard previously employed by either industry or federal agencies during testing, nor as a criterion for any warranty claims,” Patrick Davis, DOE’s vehicle technologies program manager, said then. “Further, the Energy Department’s own rigorous testing has shown that it is not reliable indicator of durability issues.”

Auto experts and mechanics vary widely on what percentage constitutes an acceptable leakdown percentage. “Good” numbers range from 5 percent to 20 percent, though many guides say to keep an eye on the engine once it reaches the upper range.

The criteria in the CRC test to determine whether an engine failed on higher blends of ethanol were chosen by the auto industry, Greco said. Greco noted that in some cases, cars on the whole performed well on E15.

“The auto industry determined that threshold and in effect it’s one that the auto industry has been widely using,” Greco said.

In all, CRC has spent about $14 million on testing E15, according to testimony from a congressional hearing earlier this year. The council’s latest test examined E15’s link to check-engine light malfunctions.