Study backed by oil industry finds E15 damages automobile fuel systems

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A study released today showing fuel containing 15 percent ethanol could damage a “substantial” number of cars on the road underscores the need to repeal federal biofuel mandates, according to the oil industry.

The study conducted by the Coordinating Research Council — a group created and supported by the oil and auto industries — found gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol, or E15, could cause critical fuel components in cars to break down. The results show U.S. EPA acted irresponsibly in approving the fuel for use, the American Petroleum Institute said today in a conference call.

“EPA knew E15 vehicle testing was ongoing but decided not to wait for the results,” said Bob Greco, API’s director of downstream activities.

API, which is lobbying Congress to eliminate the renewable fuel standard, said it plans to supply the study to EPA and the public. The industry group is also “strongly considering” taking a recent ruling affirming EPA’s approval of E15 to the Supreme Court, Greco said.

The study released by the CRC is part of an ongoing research program that began in 2008. Since then, EPA has tested and approved E15 for use in vehicles from model years 2001 and newer; gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol is currently the standard in the marketplace.

In the new CRC study, researchers examined fuel components used in varying car models: the 2007 Nissan Altima, 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier, 2004 Ford Focus, 2003 Nissan Maxima and 2004 Ford Ranger. The fuel components in the test represent about 29 million vehicles on the road today, according to the report.

The fuel components were tested with straight gasoline, gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol, gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol and an “aggressive” E15 blend meant to be the worst-case scenario found on the market. Fuel pumps were tested for 120,000 miles, or the average life of a car, in an independent lab in the Detroit suburbs.

“This study in conjunction with the prior scoping study has found that some fuel systems survive testing in mid-blend ethanol fuels, while others experience complete failures that would prevent operation,” the study concludes. The components that “failed or exhibited other effects during testing on E15 and [the aggressive] E15 are used on a substantial number of the 29 million 2001-2007 model year vehicles represented by the components evaluated in the report.”

Oil industry officials today declined to quantify how many cars a “substantial” number signified but said the damage could range from check-engine lights on cars going off inadvertently to cars stalling on the road. The testing did not include new models from Ford Motor Co. or General Motors Co., which the auto companies have already guaranteed for use on E15.

While EPA and the Department of Energy did extensive testing on E15 before approving it for the market, API argues that testing was insufficient. EPA and DOE were both involved in the recent Coordinating Research Council testing at the beginning of the process but “pulled back” from the effort, Greco said.

“The answer is to repeal the RFS before it puts millions of vehicles and many motorists at risk,” Greco said.

Last year, a DOE official called the previous CRC testing on engine damage “significantly flawed,” arguing that the council failed to establish a proper control group for the study. A federal court last year also reaffirmed EPA’s decision on E15, finding a coalition of oil, food and auto groups lacked legal standing to bring a challenge; it is that decision that API is considering taking to the Supreme Court.

Biofuels groups today slammed the new study, saying it “displays clear bias and ignores millions of miles and years of testing that went into EPA’s approval of E15.”

“The CRC study by contrast doesn’t reflect a single mile driven, but rather, car components tested in isolation. By researchers’ own admission, testing also included an ‘aggressive’ E15 blend that includes more water and acid than what consumers would use in their cars,” Fuels America, a coalition of biofuels supporters, said in a statement. “Meanwhile, auto makers like Ford and GM have approved E15 for use in their new vehicles and some of the world’s most demanding cars and drivers at NASCAR use ethanol exclusively. This is a fuel that works and is already in use.”