Editorial: LePage should support biofuels research, not enact pointless ethanol restrictions

Source: By The Bangor Daily News Editorial Board • Posted: Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Gov. Paul LePage has turned his attention to the supposed dangers of ethanol in gasoline. Last week, he called for a state study of ethanol emissions and issued an executive order requiring state agencies to buy gasoline with only 5 percent ethanol. This is meaningless. Instead, the governor should be promoting and assisting work in Maine to create ethanol from trees and other organic material that is abundant here.

All gasoline sold at Maine gas stations contains 10 percent ethanol to meet air quality and renewable fuel requirements. It is legal to sell fuel with less or no ethanol. But only a handful of places, mostly airports and marinas, sell it in Maine. It is much more expensive than the gasoline sold at stations and convenience stores. LePage’s order directs “all state agencies to implement a purchasing preference for gasoline blended with five percent or less of ethanol, when that fuel is of a comparable cost to gasoline blended with a higher concentration of ethanol.” It is not possible to find gasoline with 5 percent or less ethanol that is of “comparable cost,” so this is a senseless directive that can’t be carried out.

Fuel dealers have long been interested in importing and selling ethanol-free gasoline in Maine, says Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association. They have been unable to find economical ways to do this, he said.

People buy the ethanol-free gas, sometimes called pure gas, to use in boat motors, lawn mowers and engines that aren’t used often or are used on or near water.

There have long been concerns about the effect of ethanol on engines. Because ethanol contains more water than gasoline, it can damage engines that aren’t used frequently. It causes no problems in motor vehicles that are driven regularly, although ethanol slightly reduces gas mileage.

This is not the concern raised by LePage, however. He directed the Maine Center for Disease Control to research the health consequences of burning gasoline containing ethanol. Some studies have found problems with burning ethanol in gasoline, but at concentrations much higher than 10 percent. Studies have also found that adding ethanol to gasoline has reduced emissions.

The production of ethanol from corn raises a host of concerns, both environmentaland financial, that are beyond the scope of the governor’s order but worthy of discussion.

Ethanol, which currently comes mostly from corn, has been added to gasoline used in Maine since a 2007 ban on MTBE, a chemical used to increase the oxygen content of gasoline, which makes it burn more completely, reducing tailpipe emissions.

After MTBE was found in drinking water wells, the Legislature, in 2003, voted to ban its use in gasoline. Ethanol was used as an oxygenate instead. At about the same time, Congress approved legislation requiring increasing amounts of biofuel, usually ethanol, production to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil. This provision was extended by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which required the production of 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. Both laws included federal funding for biofuel research.

This presents a big opportunity for Maine, which has a lot of trees, which can be turned into cellulosic ethanol. Old Town Fuel and Fiber received a $30 million grantfrom the U.S. Department of Energy to research biofuels with hopes of building a refinery there. Although the mill changed hands and ultimately closed, the University of Maine continues its biofuel research.

Investment in this research, and commercialization efforts, have the potential to develop new industries for rural Maine communities, especially mill towns that have been hard hit economically as paper and pulp manufacturing facilities have been shuttered.

Bolstering this work should take precedence over meaningless campaigns against ethanol.