By Christopher A. Sawyer
Congress should stick to things it knows, and stay out of deciding those things it doesn’t. I know this would greatly restrict its ability to affect things — and make life easier and less complicated for all — but its requirement that the level of ethanol in fuel shall increase has been a mess from the start. Now, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE) approving the use of E15 (15% ethanol per gallon of gasoline by volume) in cars that were not designed to use this amount, consumers can expect to run into problems with their cars and trucks.
Back in 2008, the EPA and DOE worked with the American Petroleum Institute (API) and Coordinating Research Council (CRC) to put together a research program to study the effects a 50% increase in ethanol content (from E10 to E15) would have on vehicles built before 2000. It also included lawn equipment, generator sets and other gas-powered equipment, realizing that they too would be affected by the mandate set out in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Without warning, according to the API and CRC, both the EPA and DOE pulled out of the research program, and last year the EPA unilaterally approved E15 for general use.
The downside of E15, according to a just completed API/CRC study is valve and valve seat corrosion, the swelling of gaskets and seals, and the failure of fuel pumps and sending units. If the vehicle in question were to sit for extended periods — as proven using auto industry immersion test of parts and components — failures in these components would occur well before the half-way point of the test, which is equivalent to 120,000 miles. In some cases, the fuel pump impeller swelled and froze in place, seals and gaskets leaked, and sending units began to send garbled messages to the fuel gauge, often triggering the onboard diagnostic light before the equivalent of 50,000 miles had passed. These problems are similar to those discovered by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) when testing sending units. Ironically, ORNL is under the umbrella of the Department of Energy.
Classic cars are susceptible to ethanol corrosion and swelling, and use of E15 would accelerate this process dramatically. However, even more frightening — and much more expensive, both environmentally and financially — is the fact that commercial gasoline stations use seals and gaskets similar to those found in modern-day cars. That is, they are not hardened for E15 use. Leaking underground storage tanks are already a problem for the industry (and the reason you often see gas stations closed for tank replacement), but E15 could bring about so-called “silent” leaks that allow the volatile combination to run into the surrounding soil and leach into groundwater. And the EPA is seemingly fine with that?
This isn’t the first problem the RFS has caused. By relying heavily on corn to create ethanol (cellulosic ethanol is still a very minor player, and no one can say with confidence when, or if, it will be available in sustainable commercial quantities), we have compromised a global food source by placing it in fuel tanks as a way to help eliminate foreign oil. The recent drought was so bad that Congress was petitioned to suspend the ethanol requirement as it would begin to impinge on the availability of corn for food. Not only is this behind much of the rise in food prices, some policy analysts have tagged the RFS mandate as a reason behind the protests we now call the “Arab Spring”. In addition, corn-based ethanol requires large amounts of water (as much as 20-993 gallons per 100,000 BTUs of energy according to MIT’s Technology Review magazine) to produce one gallon of ethanol. As the drought persists, you have to ask if this is the most efficient use of this precious resource.
There may, however, be another reason behind this drive toward increased ethanol use: Money. You see, ethanol has less energy per gallon. That means your vehicle doesn’t go as far as it would on a gallon of pure gasoline. With state and federal politicians worried that gas taxes no longer will bring in the necessary revenues — especially as cars and trucks get more fuel efficient in order to meet government-mandated fuel economy standards — reducing the efficiency of the fuel increases the number of gallons each driver has to buy. It’s a stealth tax. And though the folks promoting this view are often referred to derisively as “conspiracy theorists”, what else explains a decision that has such potentially dire consequences for vehicles and the environment?