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EPA putting off E15 decision until June

Industry also gets safety council help in its fight to keep higher ethanol fuel blends off the market

The industry has chalked up two successes in its fight to protect boat engines and fuel systems from ethanol damage.

The Environmental Protection Agency in December delayed its decision on whether to approve the sale of higher-ethanol fuel blends - up to 15 percent - until more testing is completed. The ruling is now expected in June.

"I would describe this as a moderate victory for the folks who have been raising concerns about E15, including us," says Mat Dunn, legislative director for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. "The fact that they decided to delay a decision and specifically pointed out that they needed more testing before they could make a call on this validates what we've been saying all along. But I would caution that we still have a lot of work to do ... to make the case that this fuel should not be introduced into the marketplace."

Part of that work included sending the EPA a letter in early January from the NMMA, BoatU.S. and other marine organizations urging officials to base their decision on sound, scientific data. "We are writing to express our concern that EPA may allow E15 based on limited or inadequate data, as implied in its Nov. 30 letter to Growth Energy," the groups wrote in their letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and other federal officials.

The federal government set a 10 percent limit on ethanol about three decades ago. Growth Energy, an organization representing the nation's ethanol producers, petitioned the EPA earlier last year for a waiver to allow ethanol blends of up to 15 percent (E15). The 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 the disintegration of fiberglass fuel tanks, the gumming up of fuel lines, and piston and valve failure. These problems have raised concerns among boating safety advocates.

Another positive for the industry and boaters was a Nov. 2 resolution by the National Boating Safety Advisory Council declaring that "blended fuel containing ethanol has the potential to create a significant boating safety risk for the public." The council consists of 21 members appointed by the secretary of Homeland Security, according to council chairman James P. Muldoon.

"Our mission is to advise the Coast Guard on recreational boating safety issues," says Muldoon. "If a fuel line breaks, that creates a certain amount of safety problems, of course. It could lead to something igniting, a fire or an explosion. Or [boaters] could get stuck out on the water."

The group's resolution calls for the Coast Guard to:

  • continue to oppose the introduction for general sale of any midlevel ethanol fuel unless it is determined with independent, verifiable scientific testing that such fuel is compatible with marine engines and fuel systems
  • stay engaged in all efforts that attempt to introduce midlevel ethanol fuel containing greater than 10 percent ethanol into the market by providing technical assistance and advice, and advocating for additional testing
  • to the extent possible, continue to investigate the potential relationship between marine engine failures and ethanol-blended gasoline

The Coast Guard will share the requests in the council's resolution with the EPA, says Jeffrey N. Hoedt, chief of the boating safety division in the Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety. "We work with the EPA on a regular basis in trying to conduct research on proposals," says Hoedt. "We look at it from the safety aspect, and we work with them on that. Our message is that our advisory council, representing a large part of the recreational boating community, has a [safety] concern and the EPA can consider that concern."

While pleased with the delay on the E15 decision, the industry is concerned that the EPA's focus appears to be on the automotive side, the newer automotive side, says the NMMA's Dunn. "We have strong reservations and concerns about a so-called partial waiver for cars for E15," says Dunn, citing an EPA letter to Growth Energy announcing the delay. "We don't think that is going to work and is very problematic for boaters."

As the EPA reviews Growth Energy's waiver request, it is looking at all data submitted for both on-road and non-road sources, according to EPA senior press officer Catherine C. Milbourn.

Both Mercury Marine and Volvo Penta are already geared up for testing of their engines. "I've got the first engine all ready," says Rich Kolb, Volvo Penta manager of emissions and regulations. That engine is a 3-liter carbureted sterndrive of about 140 hp. "We chose this because it's a very popular model," he says. "The marine industry has the oldest legacy fleet in existence. If you buy a weed whacker and it breaks, you throw it away and get a new one. But if you buy an $18,000 to $20,000 boat and have problems, you don't scrap it."

Mercury plans to test three outboards: a high-horsepower 4-stroke of around 200 hp, a midrange 2-stroke of around 70 hp, and a 4-stroke kicker of around 4 hp to 9 hp, according to Mark Riechers, Mercury Marine director of regulatory development. Like Kolb, Riechers stresses the importance of testing engines with older technology. "Forget E10 and E15 - we have engines out there calibrated on leaded gasoline," says Riechers.

Mercury and Volvo Penta are working with the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory to obtain E15 for testing, which is expected to begin within two months, according to Riechers and Kolb.

"Testing should be completed 90 to 100 days after the fuel gets here," says Kolb. The engines will be tested for emissions as well as durability, he says. "We wanted to do some very comprehensive testing with engines on boats and multiple engines, but the DOE said it wasn't possible from a financial standpoint."

It's a good sign that the DOE is working with these two engine manufacturers, says Dunn. Still, the industry must keep making its voice heard. "We feel that more testing is necessary even after these initial tests," says Dunn.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.


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