E15 fuel, not quite legal yet, under new challenge

Source: James R. Healey • USA TODAY  • Posted: Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pressure is rising from a surprising array of interests to delay or block the sale of so-called E15 fuel at service stations.

A letter supporting more study and scientific evaluation before E15 is approved went to a House committee Monday, signed by 31 organizations.

They range from petroleum interests and automakers, to ones you might not imagine, such as environmental activist Friends of the Earth, dairy groups, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and representatives of the small-engine and snack-food industries.

The letter asks the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to support a bill that “would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct necessary scientific and technical analysis on the implications of introducing mid-level ethanol blends into the marketplace before EPA moves forward with registering such fuels.”

It’s currently legal to sell gasoline fuel blended with up to 10% ethanol. Almost any vehicle can safely burn that. But it is suspected of causing premature wear to chainsaws, lawn mowers, boat engine and the like, which is why the small-engine interests opposing the moving to E15.

The EPA, pressed by ethanol interests, approved the idea of selling E15 at the corner station, and some labels were proposed for pumps dispensing E15, which could be harmful to engines in older-model vehicles and small engines.

But EPA said E15 had to be “registered” first — that is, vendors had to guarantee it wouldn’t cause environmental problems.

Last November, EPA said the fuel “is not registered with EPA and is therefore not legal for distribution or sale” at service stations. EPA is investigating reports that E15 is being sold some places.

The anti-ethanol lobby hopes to get a law passed that could block E15, even though it is considered the best bet to meet the government requirement for more “alternative” fuel production to reduce dependence on petroleum.

A fuel called E85 is legal. It is 85% ethanol, 15% gasoline, and is not considered a gasoline fuel by the government. It can be safely used only in so-called flex-fuel vehicles.

Corn growers and other ethanol interests want to continually boost the amount of ethanol mixed with gasoline. Most ethanol is made from corn, so it’s good for the corn growers. And it’s a renewable fuel than comes from the U.S., so has environmental and national-security appeal.

But ethanol has less energy than gasoline, so the more ethanol in the fuel, the less power and mileage an engine delivers. Some blends of ethanol also can cause more pollution, and there is an argument that food should not be used for fuel.