EPA move to protect small engines draws fire

Source: Marc Heller, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, October 3, 2016

U.S. EPA has revived an effort to keep high-ethanol fuels out of small engines, but critics of the agency’s renewable fuel policies seized on the move to bolster their case.

Officials are setting a 4-gallon minimum purchase of higher-ethanol blends at pumps that dispense both 10 percent and 15 percent ethanol blends from the same hose or nozzle, EPA said.

An agency spokesman said the policy — which resembles an initiative EPA abandoned four years ago — is meant to protect consumers who might inadvertently put the E15 blend into motorcycles or other small engines that aren’t supposed to burn it and often cannot hold 4 gallons.

“The 4-gallon minimum ensures that engines that are not allowed to use E-15, like those in motorcycles, do not inadvertently get too much ethanol in the tank,” EPA said today in a statement.

The minimum purchase is an improvement over signs on pumps directing that the fuel only be dispensed into passenger vehicles, the agency said.

The new rule affects a small fraction of the nation’s pumps — fewer than 1 percent, the agency said — but touches on a bigger debate about the nation’s renewable fuel standard, which sets minimum amounts of biofuels to be mixed into the fuel supply.

Critics of the RFS said EPA’s move proves their point: that pushing ever-greater amounts of ethanol threatens smaller engines in motorcycles, boats and machines such as lawn mowers.

“I think a 4-gallon minimum creates all kinds of problems,” said Wayne Allard, vice president of government relations for the American Motorcyclist Association and a former Republican senator from Colorado.

Allard said the AMA worries that motorcycle owners will mistakenly fill up on E15, especially if it’s cheaper than the 10 percent alternative.

Occasionally, Allard said, fuel tanks are mislabeled. He said he once pumped fuel labeled E10 into his vehicle, only to discover with his own measuring device that the fuel was about 20 percent ethanol.

“Most people just pull up to the gas station and look at the price,” Allard said. “They get sucked into being misguided.”

The potential effect of higher-ethanol blends on engines has been a major talking point for opponents of the RFS, both in industry groups and in Congress. That aspect of the debate has picked up as EPA’s mandated fuel levels flirt with the so-called blend wall of 10 percent ethanol.

On the other side are industry groups for renewable fuel makers and farm organizations, which say the dangers to small engines are overblown. The Renewable Fuels Association has cited a Department of Energy study of existing research in 2013 that showed no meaningful difference in performance between E10 and E15 fuel. The RFA sponsored that study.