Study finds E15 damages engines, roiling debate over EPA approval

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 5, 2012

Two popular gasoline engines in recent-model cars showed mechanical damage from fuel blend of unleaded gasoline and 15 percent ethanol, according to a study by a nonprofit research group backed by the petroleum and auto industries.

The Coordinating Research Council study of E15 arrives in the wake of U.S. EPA’s approval of the fuel blend. Preliminary results from the study were circulated after EPA announced the first registrations of E15 on Monday.

“They’re in a rush to get E15 into the market, and we just think that’s a premature action from the agency,” said Patrick Kelly, a senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute, which worked with the council on the study.

Over the past year and a half, EPA has moved to allow E15 in motor vehicles, granting partial waivers for the blend to be used in cars from model year 2001 and later. The agency announced Monday it had approved 20 registration applications from producers wishing to make ethanol for the blend (E&ENews PM, April 2).

The oil and automobile industries have contended along the way that EPA has failed to prove E15 is safe for car engines. They say the test results from the council back them up.

According to the presentation on the multi-year study, three of eight engines in cars from model years 2001 to 2009 failed on mid-level blends of 20 percent and 15 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.

Bob Dinneen, president of the ethanol trade group Renewable Fuels Association, criticized the test’s methodology and said it was being used by the oil industry to tilt the debate on E15 in their favor. He accused the study of using a fuel blend with additives beyond ethanol that would not be found in the marketplace.

“It was designed to prompt failures if at all possible,” Dinneen said. “They’re going to justify it in terms of trying to make sure it represents the worst-case scenario. But really it represents a no-case scenario.”

The council’s executive director, Brent Bailey, said the final report will be released before the end of the month. He did not elaborate on its results.

The Coordinating Research Council has conducted a number of tests through the years on the durability of engines and other car parts.

Previous research from the council has shown that there is no statistical increase in evaporative emissions rate in cars fueled with ethanol blends of up to 85 percent.

The council began the mid-blend ethanol project in 2009. 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, according to Kelly.

The oil and auto industries maintain that EPA relied on assumptions, not on a specific engine durability test, to come to its conclusions on E15.

“EPA’s hasty attempts to speed introduction of E15 before necessary testing is complete could endanger the safety of American consumers, threatening their vehicles and gasoline-powered equipment with possibly severe damage,” American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers said Monday.

EPA failed to respond to a request for comment on the study today.

Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called E15 a “godsend” for the industry. Because of the so-called blend wall — which allows 10 percent ethanol to be blended in gasoline — ethanol manufacturers have produced too much of the corn-based fuel for the U.S. market.

In a statement emailed to Greenwire today, Tom Buis, CEO of ethanol trade group Growth Energy, also blasted the preliminary results of the council study.

“E15 is the most tested fuel blend in history — based on testing done by the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, not these incomplete studies being put forth by ethanol’s opponents who only want to continue our dangerous addiction to foreign oil,” Buis said.