Editorial: Chicago City Council: Meddling with your gas tank

Source: By Chicago Tribune Editorial Board • Posted: Monday, July 28, 2014

The Chicago City Council has a long history of doing nefarious things to its citizens, but as far as we can tell, it has never tried to ruin your car’s engine. There’s a first for everything.

A council committee is set to hold a hearing Monday on an ordinance that would require gas stations to sell “E15” fuel — shorthand for gasoline that contains 15 percent ethanol. Most gas on the market now has a blend of 10 percent ethanol.

Some makers of gas-powered cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles and lawn mowers warn their customers to steer clear of E15 fuel. AAA said in 2012 that it creates confusion for consumers and sales should be suspended.

So why is the City Council even considering such a mandate?

The best guess is that the aldermen are listening to the ethanol lobby, which is seeing a threat to its broad government subsidies and protection.

More ethanol is being produced than can be safely blended into the nation’s gas supply at the 10 percent standard. Advances in the fuel economy of cars have reduced demand for gasoline, which reduces demand for ethanol. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a reduction in the annual target it sets for ethanol usage. Ethanol makers are looking for new ways to boost the consumption of their product.

The preamble to the ordinance argues that ethanol curbs greenhouse gases and saves money, but — taking into account the energy and emissions required to produce ethanol — its benefits are debatable.

Even if there are benefits, they have to be weighed against the cost to retailers and the risk to consumers. Retrofitting pumps and tanks to dispense the corrosive E15 in accord with EPA rules could cost $70,000 to $300,000 per gas station, according to petroleum retail groups.

The EPA has certified E15 for use only in vehicles built since 2001. That suggests a lot of cars are at risk for damage. The average age of cars on the road is 11.4 years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The EPA requires all pumps dispensing E15 to carry a warning label that says it isn’t safe for older vehicles or for boats and “gasoline-powered equipment.” But that label provides scant information for consumers, who know very little, if anything, about E15. According to the EPA, E15 poses a hazard for broad categories of vehicles, such as delivery trucks. “Gasoline-powered equipment” at risk can include everything from electric generators and power washers to snow blowers and landscaping gear.

Auto manufacturers say the EPA warning should extend to many more vehicles than it does. More than 90 percent of cars on the road are not approved by their manufacturers to use E15, including most 2001-13 models, according to AAA. Automakers say E15 should be used only in vehicles with flex-fuel engines, and in newer vehicles where it is clearly specified in the owners’ manuals.

BMW, Chrysler, Nissan and Toyota have said that the use of E15 could invalidate their new-car warrantees, according to automotive research firm Edmunds.com.

So, once again, why would aldermen be pushing for an E15 mandate? They’re trying to take care of somebody, but it’s not their constituents.