Interest groups, agencies battle over study linking E15 to engine damage

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2012

A new study showing that E15 damaged car engines in two popular models provides “material evidence” that U.S. EPA moved too hastily in approving the fuel for the market, the oil and auto industries said today.

The industries released the engine study today after circulating preliminary findings last month. They said the findings by the industry-backed Coordinating Research Council provide reason to worry about fuel made of gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol.

“The results of just-completed engine testing of E15 by the Coordinating Research Council confirm that EPA did not perform due diligence and moved too quickly in its E15 vetting process,” said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. “The tests provide strong evidence E15 could damage the engines of many cars and light trucks.”

The ethanol industry, which says the introduction of E15 is critical to increasing the use of renewable fuels in the country, quickly blasted the study. Even before the results were announced, Renewable Fuels Association communications director Matt Hartwig disputed the study’s claims.

The study comes after several actions by EPA to bring the fuel to the marketplace, including initial approval in 2010 and 2011 for use in cars from model years 2001 and newer. The approvals came after what the ethanol industry describes as the most comprehensive testing a fuel blend has ever received, including catalyst testing by the Department of Energy.

“The Department of Energy conducted 6 million miles of testing on E15 — the equivalent of 12 round trips to the moon — and found no issues,” Hartwig said.

But the oil and auto industries have criticized the agency for going ahead with approvals before testing engine wear directly. The full results released today appear to show that two engines from model years 2001 to 2009 failed when run on E15 and on E20, or gasoline blended with 20 percent ethanol.

Because two of those engines successfully ran on 100 percent gasoline, the study infers there is an 89 percent chance that ethanol was “an influential factor for the engine failures” in those two engines.

Among engine damage found in the study: leaks, increased emissions and failure to meet valve clearance measurements specified by the equipment manufacturer.

“Cars were not built for E15. And now we have material evidence that validates our concerns,” said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The Coordinating Research Council (CRC) began the midblend ethanol project in 2009 in response to the federal renewable fuel standard. At that time, the maximum amount of ethanol allowed in gasoline was 10 percent.

According to the council, the study goal was to identify possible engine wear caused by adding more ethanol to gasoline.

Study ‘significantly flawed’ — DOE official

Critics of E15 were quick to jump on the study’s results as proof that EPA moved too quickly in its approval process.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who last year introduced a bill that would require EPA to commission a lengthy study of E15 by the National Academy of Sciences before giving final approvals, said the testing shows EPA needs to slow down the process and “get the science right.”

“The EPA and ethanol lobby are telling consumers that using E15 is OK for their cars made after 2001, while the manufacturers of those same vehicles warn the fuel will void the warranty, lower fuel economy, and cause premature engine damage,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “We need to resolve the science first for the sake of the American people, before allowing E15 into the marketplace.”

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that has formed an alliance with the oil and auto industries on E15, also criticized the agency, saying E15 will “leave consumers stuck on the side of the highway.” The environmental group has opposed the expansion of corn ethanol production it says will occur with the introduction of E15 into the marketplace.

“The EPA should revoke its registration of E15 until it is positive that the fuel is safe for consumers and the environment,” said Michal Rosenoer, biofuels policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

EPA was not directly involved in the study but was kept apprised of its progress in several meetings that also included representatives from the Department of Energy, Patrick Kelly, a senior policy adviser at API, said last month.

EPA has stuck by the testing it conducted, defending it in court last month against a legal challenge by the oil and auto industries (Greenwire, April 17).

In a blog post today, DOE Vehicle Technologies Program manager Patrick Davis criticized the study, calling it “significantly flawed.”

“The CRC failed to establish a proper control group, a standard component of scientific, data-driven testing and a necessity to determine statistical significance for any results,” Davis said.

The study neglected to test the engines with E10 as a control, he added, and used a test cycle designed specifically to stress the engine valve train.

The Renewable Fuels Association also faulted the new study as being designed to have E15 fail by using an unrealistic “aggressive ethanol,” or ethanol laced with additives, to test a worst-case scenario that would never occur in real life.

The association also said that some of vehicles tested were under recall by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The oil and auto industries pushed back against the criticism and said their blend was not “aggressive.” They called the CRC test the most comprehensive done to date on E15.

“The question is very basic: Is this risk and cost to consumers acceptable?” Bainwol said. “We don’t think the answer is yes.”