THE EPA wants more test data before deciding whether to increase the allowable level of ethanol in gasoline from 10% to 15% (E15). If tests remain supportive of higher blends, the EPA could approve E15 by the middle of this year.

Last month, the EPA sent a letter to Growth Energy, which had submitted a waiver requesting the allowance of up to 15% ethanol in gasoline last March. The EPA said it will continue to evaluate component durability when E15 is used over many thousands of miles.

More tests required

The Department of Energy (DOE) is testing 19 vehicles to study the long-term emissions impacts of higher ethanol blends on newer motor vehicles, but data were available on just two vehicles in December when the EPA was to announce its decision. The DOE expects that testing will be completed on an additional 12 vehicles by the end of May 2010.

The EPA expects to have a significant amount of data from this study. “If test results remain supportive and provide the necessary basis, we would be in a position to approve E15 for 2001 and newer vehicles in the mid-year time frame,” the EPA stated. If the testing indicates potential problems, however, the EPA may delay its decision until all data are in.

An allowance of E15 would add seven billion new gallons of market potential to the U.S. ethanol industry. “This expanded market opportunity is necessary to draw capital investment for cellulosic ethanol and allows the industry to comply with the Renewable Fuel Standard,” says Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy.

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), however, is concerned that the postponement of a decision “will chill investment in advanced biofuel technologies at a critical time in their development and commercialization.”

The RFA also expressed concern about what it called EPA's apparent decision to limit the scope of its waiver research to vehicle model year 2001 and newer. “The data to date has shown no ill-effects of increased ethanol use in any vehicle, regardless of model year. The RFA encourages EPA to look at the waiver request with the entire range of vehicles in mind or provide detailed, scientific rationale for excluding older model vehicles,” the RFA stated.

Effect on small engines

The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) wants the EPA to address the effect of E15 on lawn mowers, chain saws, snow throwers and numerous other consumer products. Kris Kiser, executive vice president, OPEI, says that while OPEI is not anti-ethanol, it is concerned about possible corrosion of fuel tanks that could lead to dangerous fuel leaks. He adds that when engines burn hotter as they do with ethanol fuel, there also can be unintentional clutch engagement, which would present serious safety issues.

DOE testing of mid-level ethanol blends on outdoor power equipment engines has shown performance irregularities and failure on tested product, Kiser says. The outdoor power equipment industry would like to build new machines that are capable of handling higher ethanol blends, but this does not address what to do with legacy products or further increasing ethanol blends, he says.

The EPA has said that it will take steps to address fuel pump labeling to ensure consumers use the proper gasoline for their vehicles and other products, such as outdoor power equipment. Currently, outdoor power equipment is not designed, built or warranted for mid-level blends.

“When you recognize how many vehicles are currently on the road today, and the various types of outdoor equipment used daily by average Americans, it's clear that a rush to judgment would only fail consumers,” says Bill Holbrook, communications director, National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA).

The NPRA said a partial waiver would “cause significant disruption in the nation's wholesale and retail gasoline distribution infrastructure, widespread consumer confusion and potential misfueling, and potential liability for engine and fuel manufacturers for any damage caused to gasoline-powered engines not compatible with mid-level ethanol blends.”

The EPA is coordinating a working group to address labeling requirements to use if the E15 waiver is approved.