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Industry fears impact of E15 decision

Confusion and misfueling are likely despite marine-engine exemption, industry leaders say

Marine engines are excluded from the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to allow the sale of fuel containing more than 10 percent ethanol, but the approval still may have a negative impact on boating, according to marine engine manufacturers and industry experts.

The waiver applies to fuel that contains as much as 15 percent ethanol, known as E15, which now can be used in cars from model-year 2007 or later. The EPA says it has done vigorous testing to ensure that E15 is safe for those cars and is now testing on cars built between 2001 and 2006. The waiver does not force the use of E15, says Gina McCarthy, the EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation.

Engine manufacturer Mercury Marine says it's inevitable that higher ethanol blends will mistakenly find their way into older cars or boats. "We join other industry groups in the belief that the level of testing performed to support the EPA decision was inadequate and that the processes designed to prevent the unintended use of this fuel blend in non-highway applications or older vehicles are inadequate," Mercury says.

"Fuel containing higher proportions of ethanol is not compatible with many fuel system and engine components and, if mistakenly used, will cause irreversible damage ... that will lead to engine failure and potential safety risks," the company adds.

The EPA is proposing E15 pump-labeling rules, including a requirement that the fuel industry specify the ethanol content of gasoline sold to retailers. The National Marine Manufacturers Association, which has lobbied hard against E15, says this step does not go far enough.

"We think it will create a great deal of consumer confusion at the pump when boaters fill up their boats and their cars and trucks," NMMA legislative director Mat Dunn says. "Ninety percent of recreational boats registered in the U.S. today are under 26 feet, which means generally that they're trailered boats, and the overwhelming majority of boaters fill up at regular automotive gas stations.

"There is a very high risk of misfueling and we don't think that EPA is currently pursuing robust or meaningful control to prevent ... confusion on this issue," he adds.

Dunn says that when the United States made the transition from leaded to unleaded gasoline the size of the gasoline nozzle was changed to prevent misfueling, but that strategy didn't work.

The Marine Retailers Association of America, which also fought against E15, agrees that the decision will only lead to confusion. "With this new ruling, the EPA sounds a lot like what the government did with the colored diesel fuel mess we had 20 years ago," says MRAA chairman Ed Lofgren. "A fuel dock will have to have a 'dial an ethanol' button on fuel tanks to comply with engines built before 2000 and engines built after 2007. I guess the in-between engines will just have to wait at the fuel dock until the government figures it all out."

Although E15 is not mandated, the EPA did not announce any actions to ensure that, over time, compatible fuels will remain available to owners of products for which E15 is not suitable. "It is still unclear to us if appropriate fuels will be available to recreational boaters and if marinas will have to stock E15 fuel for engines made after 2007 and E10 fuel for engines made before 2001," MRAA president Phil Keeter says.

The EPA's Oct. 13 decision is based on a petition submitted by the pro-ethanol organization Growth Energy and 54 ethanol producers.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.

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