E15 ‘confusion’ is a growing concern

Posted on Written by Chris Landry

20_e15_01The NMMA and a House committee are urging the EPA to take a step back before approving its use

The Environmental Protection Agency’s expected partial waiver to allow gasoline with 15 percent ethanol for newer road vehicles likely will lead to boat owners mistakenly filling their tanks with a fuel that could damage their engines, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The waiver, which the EPA expects to grant in September, will create confusion among owners of boats and other non-road vehicles and lead to “misfueling,” says Mat Dunn, NMMA legislative director. “This waiver will generate an enormous amount of consumer confusion,” he says. “A partial waiver is a guarantee that misfueling of boat and other non-road engines will occur and it will push E15 into many markets, which means trouble.”

Dunn says the action will lead to the proliferation of E15 around the country – starting in states where ethanol is readily available, such as Minnesota and Iowa – and will make it difficult for boat owners to find E10. He says he is hopeful that a strong letter opposing the waiver sent to the EPA from the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce will lead to a “turn in the opposite direction and slow down EPA’s decision on the waiver.”

The EPA must review all congressional inquiries, including this one, according to EPA senior press officer Catherine C. Milbourn. She declined to comment about whether the letter will be reviewed before a decision on the partial waiver is handed down.

The federal government set a 10 percent limit on ethanol about three decades ago. Growth Energy, a group representing the nation’s ethanol producers, petitioned the EPA early last year for a waiver to allow ethanol blends of as much as 15 percent.

20_e15_02The NMMA argues that the EPA should deny the E15 waiver request until independent and comprehensive scientific testing is completed on a full range of marine engines and other products. E10 has led to such problems as the disintegration of fiberglass fuel tanks, the gumming up of fuel lines, and piston and valve failure.

By the end of September, Department of Energy testing on newer vehicles (covering the 2007 and later motor vehicle fleet) will be completed and the EPA plans to take action on the waiver request regarding the use of E15 in those vehicles, according to the EPA’s latest E15 update posted on its website. If those test results support E15, the EPA also will propose a labeling rule on fuel-dispensing equipment at that time, according to the site.

The letter – signed by the committee chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. – asks the EPA how it plans to ensure that “increasing the permissible level of ethanol in gasoline is accomplished in a way that does not present any potential harm to … consumers’ investments in cars, trucks and other engines and equipment.” It asks the EPA to “protect the investments the American people have made in their cars, trucks, boats.”

20_e15_03The letter, dated July 29, also raises the following concerns:

  • If the EPA does, indeed, grant the partial waiver it should have a “well-thought-out and well-executed plan for avoiding misfueling. Without appropriate safeguards, a partial approval could pose major problems for consumers with vehicles or engines that are not compatible with E15.”
  • The authors liken the misfueling scenario with E15 to the switch from leaded to unleaded gas. “Based on the experience with the transition from leaded to unleaded gasoline, a significant amount of accidental or intentional misfueling would be likely,” the letter states. “If such misfueling led to operability or durability problems, or increased repair costs, a significant number of consumers could be adversely affected.”
  • The committee members argue that the Clean Air Act prevents the sale of E15 unless the EPA determines that the fuel will be compatible with “existing cars and trucks, and with non-road equipment (such as boats, lawn mowers, chain saws, etc.).”
  • If E15 damages equipment, the letter states, there could be a backlash against renewable fuels and it could “seriously undermine the agency’s credibility in addressing fuel and engine issues in the future.”
  • The letter is accompanied by a list of 16 questions covering such topics as whether the EPA can assure consumers that E15 will not adversely affect boat engines and whether warranties would be voided if consumers mistakenly use E15 in engines not designed for this fuel.

“We hope EPA gets the message,” Dunn says, pointing out that the letter has bipartisan support. The letter was also signed by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., ranking member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

While the marine industry and supporters fight the partial waiver, engine manufacturers Mercury Marine and Volvo Penta are to begin testing engines with E15. “They finally got the contract to us,” says Mark Riechers, Mercury Marine’s director of regulatory development. “The government doesn’t always move so fast. … We’ve ordered the engines and we’ve ordered the fuel. We’re going to be testing for emissions and durability.”

Mercury will test a 9.9-hp 4-stroke, a 300-hp 4-stroke Verado, and a 200- or 225-hp 2-stroke EFI. “There are thousands and thousands of them out there,” Riechers says of the 200- and 225-hp EFI outboards. The engines will be tested for 300 hours at wide-open throttle.

Volvo Penta will test a 4.3 GL (190 hp) carbureted sterndrive engine, says Rich Kolb, Volvo Penta’s manager of emissions and regulations. “It’s a pretty common engine in a lot of your entry-level boats,” he says.

The two engine manufacturers will report the results to the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The EPA, on its website, says it has insufficient data on the use of E15 in marine engines to make a decision on a waiver that would allow the fuel to be used for these engines. “EPA will, of course, review any relevant data that is submitted prior to making its decision,” according to the agency’s statement.

However, it’s the mere introduction of E15 into the marketplace that concerns the industry. “You’ll have a huge complication in the fuel distribution system because you have different fuels for different applications,” Riechers says. “Trying to get the consumer to put the right fuel in the right tank is always a challenge. We’re very concerned about [this].”

The EPA points out that other steps must be completed before E15 makes it to fuel stations, including “testing on dispensing equipment, changes to state laws to allow for the use of E15 and completion of the fuels registration process.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.

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