The use of ethanol in gasoline is a sensitive topic. Who would oppose an alternative fuel that can help wean Americans from fossil fuels and reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil? The problem is that ethanol in certain quantities has chemical side effects that may pose a threat to older vehicles and some high-performance equipment. SEMA is leading the fight to support the alternative fuel while protecting vulnerable auto equipment and its owners.
A main challenge is the fact that ethanol attracts moisture, leading to increased water formation that can create formic acid and corrode metals, plastics and rubber. Newer vehicles, engines and exhaust systems may have been designed to work compatibly with E10. They may even tolerate E15; however, the materials found in many older vehicles and certain high-performance equipment will not endure the corrosive effects, especially if the vehicles are not regularly used. SEMA is seeking to protect that segment of its membership producing these parts and a large enthusiast base that owns such equipment.
The number of concerns expressed by SEMA members and SEMA Action Network enthusiasts regarding E10 has increased significantly in recent years. In response, SEMA has examined the science behind ethanol and defined its position on ethanol content. The research included in-depth discussions with SEMA members and industry leaders along with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Energy and Argonne Laboratory, where extensive ethanol research is conducted.
E10 has been around for a number of years, and its use has recently skyrocketed. More than 90% of gasoline sold in 2010 was E10. However, most consumers are unaware of that fact, since E10 labeling rules are subject to state regulation. Some states do not require labels; for those that do, the label is inconsistent in appearance and location on the pump. SEMA has fielded a number of enthusiast complaints about E10 concerns, the inability to locate pure gasoline and confusion on what is being dispensed at the gas station.
In 2009, the ethanol industry asked the EPA for a waiver to market E15. SEMA joined with a diverse coalition of industry leaders in opposing the waiver based on scientific concerns that a 50% increase in ethanol content could harm automobile parts in many model years of vehicles. SEMA supported further study so that there is a clearer understanding of the issue. Besides the corrosion issue, SEMA observed that E15 also has different combustion characteristics from E10 and may cause problems with air/fuel mixtures, fuel-pump sealing and related on-board fuel delivery components.
In November 2010, the EPA approved a partial waiver to allow the use of E15 in ’07 and newer vehicles. In January 2011, the EPA expanded the waiver to include ’01 and newer vehicles. Nevertheless, the EPA agreed with SEMA’s concerns and made it “illegal to fuel pre-’01 vehicles” with E15. The EPA determined that pre-’01 vehicles have the potential for increased material degradation with E15 use, that some of these vehicles may have been designed for only limited exposure to E10 and that the oldest vehicles on the road pre-date ethanol blends in the marketplace altogether. The EPA concluded that the potential for material degradation may make emissions control and fuel systems more susceptible to corrosion and other chemical reactions. (Several lawsuits have been filed to challenge the partial waiver.)
As it turns out, making it “illegal to fuel pre-2001 vehicles” are essentially words without meaning, since E15 will be available to everyone. The EPA would simply rely on a gas pump caution label to instruct motorists that E15 is only to be used in ’01 and newer cars and that it is prohibited in other vehicles because the fuel may damage the vehicles and engines. Despite the potential for economic harm and equipment breakdowns, the EPA is placing responsibility for understanding the difference between E10 and E15 directly on vehicle owners.
According to EPA estimates, the number of vehicles in the United States subject to misfueling includes nearly 74 million pre-’01 model cars and light trucks. Gas stations, automakers and SEMA-member manufacturers would not be granted immunity from lawsuits if a consumer alleges a problem from E15. Moreover, auto manufacturers won’t cover engine problems that result from using fuel blended with more than 10% ethanol.
SEMA supports ethanol as an alternative fuel so long as it does not pose a risk. In fact, there would be no need to raise the fuel content from E10 to E15 if existing flex-fueled vehicles were filled with E85 fuel and more flex-fuel vehicles were sold. Instead, owners generally buy gasoline because the operating price is traditionally lower and many gas stations don’t
As the debate continues, SEMA will remain a leader in preventing decisions from being made without unbiased testing on the impact of E15 on vehicle components and engines. If you would like more information or to share how E15 would impact your business or vehicles, please contact Stuart Gosswein, SEMA’s senior director of federal government affairs at 202/783-6007 x30 or firstname.lastname@example.org.