Battle lines drawn for ethanol war

Posted on Written by Chris Landry

Industry has some powerful allies in its fight to force more testing of E15

The marine industry this spring finds itself embroiled in a struggle to stop a proposed 50 percent increase in the ethanol content of gasoline – the latest round in its fight to protect boat engines and fuel systems from the biofuel’s damaging effects.

“We support biofuels – what boater doesn’t want a cleaner environment?” says John McKnight, director of environmental and safety compliance for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “We’re against plowing forward and making decisions on ideology instead of science.”

The government set a 10 percent limit on ethanol about three decades ago. Growth Energy, a group representing the nation’s ethanol producers, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency March 6 for a waiver to allow ethanol blends of up to 15 percent, or E15. The NMMA argues 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.

The ethanol hike proposal comes at a time when marine engine manufacturers, mechanics and boatyard crews appear to be on their way to mitigating E10-induced engine and fuel-system problems.

“We’re managing,” says Dan Crete, the head of customer service at Burr Brothers Boats in Marion, Mass. “[Dealing with E10] is part of the business.”

E10 has led to the disintegration of fiberglass fuel tanks, the gumming up of fuel lines, and piston and valve failure. Gasoline with ethanol attracts moisture, and because boats are kept in damp environments, accumulation of moisture is inevitable in their fuel tanks. The mixture encourages the growth of bacteria, which collects as sludge and can be drawn into the fuel system, clogging filters and plugging fuel passages.

Mustering support

Before approving or denying the waiver, the EPA must consider public comments on the proposal. The marine and ethanol industries have been rallying their respective troops to voice their opinions during the 45-day comment period, which ends May 21. (At press time, there was talk the EPA may extend the comment period.)

The NMMA set up an online action alert (www.nmma.org) to allow people to submit comments to the EPA encouraging the denial of the petition.

“We’d love to get more than 20,000 [comments] since the pro-ethanol lobby has stated that they want to submit 20,000 comments encouraging that the E15 waiver be granted,” says NMMA public relations manager Christine Pomorski. As of May 12, the association had already surpassed its goal with 21,467 comments.

Here’s one of them: “Thank you for considering our negative response to the proposed increase in ethanol to 15 percent in the marine engine environment,” Phineas Sprague Jr., president of Portland Yacht Services in Portland, Maine, writes in his commentary to the EPA. “Please do not ignorantly pass on politically correct ideological issues. Ethanol is an exceedingly poor choice for a fuel additive in the marine environment.”

Influential allies

The marine industry realizes it represents a minute percentage of the overall use of gasoline in this country. So it’s reassuring that other big hitters – including the auto industry, fuel refineries and filling stations, and manufacturers of outdoor power equipment – stand on the same sideline as those who manufacture, sell and service boats and engines.

Approving E15 would have a huge impact on consumers, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, was quoted as saying in a recent New York Times article. “It could cause problems, including the voiding of car warranties. There’s a lot to worry about. All a consumer has to do is look at the fuels section of the owner’s manual, which says that the use of fuel above 10 percent ethanol may result in denial of warranty claims.”

In addition to cars and trucks, there are 300 million pieces of equipment in the United States that run on gasoline, according to Kris Kiser, executive vice president of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute. “If we bring these fuels to market and consumers don’t understand them or they find it’s detrimental, there’s going to be a backlash against the fuel,” says Kiser.

Another positive for the marine industry is media reports highlighting the weaknesses of ethanol as a solution to U.S. pollution and reliance on foreign oil. Punch in the words “ethanol” and “scam” into a Web search engine, and a list of articles, blogs and commentaries pops up. Some of the more prominent editorial articles published were from the Wall Street Journal (“Everyone Hates Ethanol,” March 16), Time magazine (“The Clean Energy Scam,” March 28, 2008), Rolling Stone (“The Ethanol Scam,” Aug. 9, 2007), and MSN.com (“Ethanol: Boon or boondoggle?” Nov. 19, 2008).

Many of these pieces point out that the federal government subsidizes ethanol producers with a tax credit of 51 cents per gallon of fuel ethanol, so ethanol-blend fuels cost more to produce than conventional gasoline. And it has been reported that engines running on E10 get lower gas mileage than those using conventional gasoline.


Coping with E10

In 2005, when ethanol reared its head in the Northeast, boatyards, marinas and engine manufacturers began scrambling to alleviate the engine and fuel-system problems the additive was causing.

They’re still scrambling.

To arm its dealers with tools to ward off engine malfunctions, the Yamaha Marine Group has held a series of webinars. These live conferences on the Internet attracted more than 80 Yamaha dealers, according to Yamaha communications manager Martin Peters. The engine manufacturer also held a 45-minute webinar in April with 15 representatives of the marine media (which included a Soundings Trade Only reporter) to get the word out about how to deal with ethanol.

“E10 is not optimal for use in the marine environment largely because it dissolves contaminants in marine fuel tanks and absorbs moisture from the environment,” says Peters. “These issues can be minimized with vigilance and preventive maintenance, and that is what we are encouraging among dealers and the public.”

Preventive maintenance includes using fine-particle fuel filters (10-

micron), adding fuel stabilizer to the tank before seasonal layup, and even buying a test kit to determine the level of ethanol in your fuel, according to Yamaha.

“[Test kits] are very easy to find and inexpensive,” David Meeler, Yamaha product marketing information manager, said during the webinar with the media. “The first line of defense is knowing what you’re fighting.”

And you may not be fighting E10, Meeler points out. “There may be more than one hand in the pot, so to speak, so you can actually wind up in various parts of country where somebody may have introduced more ethanol than 10 percent.”

Fuel stabilizers help delay the onset of “phase separation,” according to Meeler. Ethanol and water readily dissolve in each other, so when ethanol is used as an additive in gasoline, water will actually dissolve in the blended fuel to a greater extent than in conventional gasoline. Any additional water will separate from the gasoline when the water reaches the maximum amount the gasoline blend can dissolve.

Arguing for tests

It’s logical to say that phase separation and other ethanol-related issues would occur more frequently and to a greater extent with E15. But the marine industry wants to fully define the impacts. That’s why scientific tests are crucial.

“Our position is hard to argue against,” says Mark Riechers, Mercury Marine’s director of regulatory development. “We’re not against ethanol, but we want testing done. The data is not there. Growth Energy’s studies are not enough.”

(Growth Energy says several studies – done by the U.S. government, the state of Minnesota and the Renewable Fuels Association – have proven E15 will not damage engines, will result in cleaner air, and will reduce U.S. reliance on oil.)

Mercury has begun talks with the Department of Energy to possibly conduct engine tests, more specifically emissions and durability tests of outboard and sterndrive engines using non-ethanol fuel, E10 and E15.

“The DOE has some money for the testing, and it makes sense for a marine manufacturer to do the test because [it] has the equipment and facilities,” says Riechers.

Mercury, working for the DOE on a contractual basis, would test the outboards for 300 continuous hours at full power; the sterndrives would be put through a 150-hour test.

The EPA has until Dec. 1 to deny or grant the waiver. Even if Mercury’s tests reveal the engines can handle E15, more research and testing is necessary, including E15’s impact on engines and fuel systems when they’re operated in salt water, says Riechers.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires refiners to mix more and more ethanol into the fuel they sell. In six years, 15 billion gallons of ethanol must be used in gasoline, and 36 billion gallons must be mixed in by 2022.

Because fuel can only be sold with a cap of 10 percent ethanol, the ethanol industry has conceded not enough gas can be sold to meet the ethanol mandates set two years ago. A higher percentage of ethanol in the fuel would give the ethanol industry a chance to reach the mandate levels. That’s why it wants to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline – and it wants to do it now.

“Failure to remove the blend barrier will result in an insufficient supply of ethanol to meet the renewable fuel mandates of EISA 2007,” writes Wesley Clark, co-chairman of Growth Energy.

Finding E-zero

Ethanol may be here to stay, but refineries still have room within their quotas to produce non-ethanol fuel – and marinas and boaters in some areas, such as along both Florida coasts, are finding it and buying it.

Butch Bayley, the owner of Sailfish Marina in Stuart, Fla., found a supplier of non-ethanol fuel in April. A sign reading “We Now Sell Non-Ethanol 89 Octane” is posted in a prominent position on his fuel dock.

“We haven’t had an increase in business per se, but we have picked up a number of customers who want non-ethanol fuel,” says Bayley. “I’m elated that we have it, and our Yamaha mechanic is on top of the world.”

That would be Steve Giallanzo, proprietor of Sailfish Marine Service and a Yamaha master technician. He rents shop space from Bayley. Giallanzo was hit with a double whammy when the fuel dock began selling E10 last July. More customers were coming in with fuel-related issues, plus ethanol was taking its toll on Giallanzo’s personal boat – a 23-foot Grady-White with twin 150-hp 4-strokes. “I ran 800 hours without a problem, and then with ethanol the injectors were getting plugged up every 100 hours,” he says. “I go to the Bahamas all the time [to fish]. I don’t need problems. The government should not be putting ethanol in marine fuel.”

Other areas of the country have no choice – only ethanol blend gasoline is available because of non-compliance with federal emissions standards.

As a result, marinas and boatyards may be farther along in preventive maintenance than in other areas of the country.

“We did work pretty hard getting warnings out there,” says Crete of Burr Brothers. “It still rears its ugly head on a daily basis.”

Burr Brothers recommends most of the same preventive maintenance steps that Yamaha outlined in its webinar, including adding fuel stabilizer. But unlike Yamaha, Crete recommends his customers store fuel tanks with as little gasoline as possible. Yamaha recommends filling the tank 7/8 full, leaving enough room for expansion.

The two different strategies illustrate that the industry is still trying to figure out the most effective ways to deal with E10.

“We’re still struggling with E10,” says Soundings technical consultant Erik Klockars, an independent marine mechanic operating out of Niantic, Conn. “E15 is going to be a disaster for us.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.

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