Industry ties haunt testing group

Source: Blake Sobczak, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A testing firm funded by oil and automotive companies has emerged as the latest player in a tug of war between the oil industry and biofuels interests, although the corporation claims to want no part in the fight.

But owing to its recent studies questioning the safety of some ethanol/gas mixtures, the Coordinating Research Council Inc. has taken heat from biofuels proponents and even the Department of Energy.

Much of the criticism stems from a report the group released last week showing gasoline mixed with 15 percent ethanol — commonly called E15 — could damage fuel components in many cars. The CRC study tested various models from 2001 to 2007, intended to represent roughly 29 million vehicles on the road.

Biofuels groups such as the Renewable Fuels Association and Fuels America have taken shots at CRC’s methods, arguing that the tests included an aggressive E15 fuel mix unlikely to be encountered in the actual market (E&ENews PM, Jan. 29). CRC’s study also incorporated standard E15, E10, and pure gasoline, or E0.

Oil industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute have welcomed the report and used it to bolster their calls for U.S. EPA to repeal its renewable fuel standard.

Meanwhile, the Alpharetta, Ga.-based nonprofit CRC has found itself in polarizing political territory as it navigates the issue of ethanol.

“I can’t say that we have a lot of controversy like this, typically,” said CRC Executive Director Brent Bailey, pointing out that his group has published dozens of reports in the past several years about biofuels, most of which have found no issue with ethanol. “We don’t go out and try to influence the use of the information and try not to get involved in any of this back-and-forth stuff,” he added.

The CRC gets its primary funding from BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motor Co., among other oil and auto companies, giving critics plenty of fodder with which to peg the group to an agenda.

But EPA, the Department of Energy and even renewable fuels groups such as RFA have also sponsored CRC research in the past. The technical group fills a niche in the testing market by combining the expertise of the oil companies that produce fuels with the auto companies that use them.

Bailey likened the business to spending time with a big family where not everyone always gets along.

Biofuels and gasoline producers have plenty to fight over. Ethanol fuels represent at least a $30 billion industry, according to figures from the Department of Agriculture and the RFA. Ethanol’s share of the fuel market has shot up sixfold over the past decade and is poised to grow more as EPA pressures automakers and refiners to incorporate renewables.

In October 2010, EPA issued a partial waiver allowing E15 in cars newer than 2007. The agency extended that directive in January 2011 to include light duty models from as far back as 2001, which includes more than 60 percent of all U.S. vehicles on the road today.

“There’s a lot at stake for both of these [the auto and oil] industries as well as every consumer in the country,” Bailey said. “If things are going to change, you want to make sure there isn’t going to be a lot of damage that someone is going to have to pay for.”

Yet DOE says it has already done just that. In a blog post last May, Vehicle Technologies Program Manager Patrick Davis excoriated a 2012 CRC study on ethanol in an article headlined “Getting It Right.” Davis said the CRC test failed to include a control group, among other issues, resulting in “unreliable and incomplete data.” Davis also noted that “the Energy Department conducted its own rigorous, thorough and peer-reviewed study of the impact of E15 fuel on current, conventional vehicle catalyst systems,” concluding that E15 did not result in a statistically significant loss of performance compared to conventional gasoline.

When reached for comment about the CRC’s latest E15 study, a DOE representative said the agency stood by the content of its earlier blog post.

Carlton Carroll, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said “we stand by CRC’s research,” observing that the council has more than 70 years of experience and “often does research at the request of government agencies and third parties, including the renewable fuels industry.”

Ultimately, EPA is under no duress from the CRC to incorporate the latest study in its renewable fuel standards. The CRC does not make policy recommendations, nor does it interpret the results of its studies, which it often contracts to independent labs. Instead, the group is “just reporting the results, that’s all,” as Bailey put it.

In a statement last week, EPA said it will review the CRC’s study but noted that “in accordance with the requirements under the Clean Air Act, EPA determined that 15 percent ethanol is acceptable for use in model year 2001 and newer cars and light pickup trucks after analyzing test results from Department of Energy and other data before the agency.”