It might surprise ethanol lobbyists that David Kennedy, the government affairs senior program manager for BoatUS, drives a Prius.
One of the pro-ethanol movement’s favorite arguments against opponents of continual ethanol-level increases in the overall fuel supply is that the oil industry controls them. Yet Kennedy does not oppose biofuels. He is quick to point out that he is not against ethanol as long as the option for buying fuel with no ethanol — dubbed E0 — remains, and as long as the so-called blend wall is not breached. That means fuel with 10 percent ethanol, or E10, would be the highest concentration widely available because it’s the highest level that some engines — such as those in boats, antique cars, motorcycles and lawn equipment — can handle.
“To be clear, at BoatUS we don’t think renewables are a bad idea, but we need it to be smart and need it not to damage our engines,” says Kennedy. “It’s easy for us to start beating up on ethanol, and I don’t discount what they’re trying to do with that, but we need it to work for boaters.”
But that’s not the way the government is heading. The Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent recommendation, in late November, proposed raising ethanol levels to be consistent with those mandated in the Renewable Fuel Standard. (See story, Page 6).
BoatUS is a part of Smarter Fuel Future, a coalition of more than 70 organizations that represents not just recreational boating interests and big-oil interests, but also environmentalists, food groups and other types of farm organizations.
“I walk into these coalition meetings, and I’m always a little stunned at the full range of interests,” Kennedy says. “Yes, the oil companies are in the room, but there’s also us, the motorcycle guys, some other small-equipment people, the folks we call the ‘barnyard group,’ which includes the Poultry Federation, dairy farmers, the cattlemen; there are people who represent big chain restaurants, small restaurants, environmental groups, like the Natural Resource Defense Council and Wilderness Society, because of some of the environmental impacts there. It’s a very broad coalition.”
“We all have different talking points, so to speak, but we have common goals and a cohesive strategy,” says Michael Lewan, grassroots and government relations manager for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, another organization that is a member of Smarter Fuel Future.
‘Beware the simple idea’
Though they might disagree on other points, the coalition is aligned in opposing the rule that requires an increase of ethanol in the overall fuel supply — the Renewable Fuel Standard. Amended in 2007 as part of the Clean Air Act, the rule was a reflection of the Bush administration’s desire to rely less on foreign oil.
“One of my political axioms is to beware the simple idea,” Kennedy says. “The idea was that we should reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but all of a sudden we have this policy that’s really hard for the end user” because of costly repairs attributable to ethanol engine damage.
And then there’s the safety component.
“My little 17-foot EdgeWater, I don’t want to have to think about this, especially when I’m out on the Chesapeake Bay and there’s a thunderhead over there and I need to get back quickly, but uh-oh, my engine fails,” Kennedy says.
A false assumption
The RFS also took for granted that fuel consumption would continue to climb in the United States, something that has turned out to be untrue. Instead of raising ethanol (or biofuel) levels as a percentage of the overall fuel supply, the standard called for mandates that flatly increased it.
In 2015 about 140.43 billion gallons (about 3.34 billion barrels) of gasoline were consumed in this country, a daily average of about 384.74 million gallons, or about 9.16 million barrels a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This is about 1.5 percent less than the record high of about 390 million gallons a day, or about 9.29 million barrels a day, consumed in 2007, the year the rule was amended. Based on today’s fuel consumption, keeping up with the law the way it was written would mean that levels high above even E15 would be required.
The fluctuation in the percentage of ethanol is a problem in itself, says Mark Riechers, director of regulatory development for Mercury Marine.
“We tell them, if you can tell us what this engine’s going to run on for the next 40 years, we can run on that and figure it out,” he says. “But when you keep changing the playing field, it’s a problem. That’s kind of where we’re at. We need to know what it’s going to run on, and they need to understand there’s 40 years of engines out there that were not calibrated on higher ethanol blends.”
Mercury helped perform an ethanol study with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2010-11, and photos in the resulting report showed a breakdown in several engine components using E15.
The report found that on a 300-hp 4-stroke supercharged Verado using E15, three exhaust valves failed to close to the end of the endurance test. Analysis showed the valves developed high-cycle fatigue cracks because of excessive metal temperatures. The pistons on the E15 engine showed indications of higher operating temperatures, compared with the E0 engine’s pistons, as evidenced by the visual difference in carbon deposits.
“Several issues were discovered in this study from an exhaust-emissions and an engine-durability standpoint as a result of running E15 fuel in outboard marine engines,” the report said. “Run-quality concerns were also identified as a result of the lean operation on the carbureted engine.”
The end of E0?
One of the biggest issues with the newest EPA proposal is that many say it would mean the end of zero-ethanol gas.
“One of the takeaways I’ve gotten from the proposal is if they go with the current amount, there will be room for about 200 million gallons of E0. In 2015 about 5 billion gallons of E0 were consumed,” says Kennedy.
The new proposal will affect areas where it’s allowable to sell and use non-ethanol gasoline, says Jerry Nessenson, founder of the fuel additive company ValvTect and now head of NESS Petroleum Solutions, an independent consultant on fuel issues.
“Some refiners have been selling a 91-octane, non-ethanol grade of gasoline. Those refiners can meet ethanol requirements and still sell some E0. That’s been very popular. But as [there are] requirements to sell more ethanol or use more ethanol as blend stock, it will eliminate their ability to sell that. I can see that going away in the near future,” Nessenson says.
Loss of that fuel would be a big deal to those who sell it, says Joe Lewis, who offers E0 at his Mount Dora Boating Center & Marina in central Florida. “Testing has shown some of these motors just aren’t going to live on E15, and they’re sketchy living on E10. That’s why there’s demand for E0,” Lewis says, adding that all of the Florida Wawa stores, a convenience chain, carry E0, as well as some local distributors.
But Lewis says his company does not do a lot of customer outreach, in part because he believes BoatUS is already doing a very good job of it and because the effects of ethanol on boat engines have not been severe, perhaps because E0 is available and customers do seek it out.
“We’ve seen the effects of E10 on the breakdown of older fuel components — fuel lines, gaskets, fuel rings. We haven’t seen an engine blow up due to it,” Lewis says.
He thinks E0 could also be popular because fuel problems are larger issues in big boating states such as Florida.
“I think there are polls our coalition has done showing consumers are, by and large, against the idea of the ethanol mandate,” Lewan says. “They are distrustful of mandates in general and don’t like the idea that Congress and the EPA are forcing Americans to purchase higher ethanol blends they may not be seeking out, or in our case, are incompatible with products at hand. More people are aware that ethanol, particularly higher blends, are out there and growing.”
Another issue at hand is getting the infrastructure modified to accommodate E15 instead of E10. Last year’s ethanol increase came with a promise by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spend $100 million to add 5,000 blender pumps in 21 states in an effort to handle E15.
The USDA estimates that the investment will more than double the number of stations that offer intermediate blends of ethanol, mainly E15 fuel, nationwide.
Meanwhile, bills continue to emerge on both the House and Senate side seeking to amend the RFS. The newest, HR 5180, or the Food and Fuel Consumer Protection Act, was introduced by U.S. Rep. Bill Flores last May 10. That was right around the time of the American Boating Congress, when ethanol was the hot topic on the Hill.
Lewan says the bill has 15 co-sponsors and the NMMA supports it. “It really does look more at some of our issues, like engine safety, protection of consumers going to the pump, than other legislation that has been floated,” he says.
U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has introduced two ethanol bills — HR 704 and HR 703. HR 703 amends the Clean Air Act to repeal the renewable fuel program.
HR 704 amends the Clean Air Act to revise the Renewable Fuel Standard program. The bill revises the RFS by decreasing the total volume of renewable fuel that must be in gas sold through 2022.
It also would require that the EPA determine the amount of cellulosic biofuel to be blended into the fuel supply, based on the actual volume of biofuel produced in the current year, and it prohibits the EPA from allowing gasoline containing more than 10 percent ethanol by volume to be introduced into commerce.
“We are glad to see that Congress is still trying to make a key effort for us,” says Lewan.
None of the bills passed last year, but “we are picking up supporters,” Lewan adds. “In 2015 more than 180 members of the House signed on to the letter calling on the EPA to reduce 2016 levels. We’re creating awareness and hoping we can start to pick up legislators who haven’t come out one way or the other on RFS. There are still dozens of those.”
That will lay the groundwork for the new administration and Congress, he says.
One of the reasons the National Wildlife Federation has joined the coalition of groups opposed to ethanol is because of algae blooms. Those create dead zones — areas without oxygen — that cause marine wildlife to either migrate or die.
In 2014 officials in Toledo, Ohio, warned residents not to drink from their taps after scientists detected high levels of microcystin — a potent liver toxin produced by algal blooms — at the city’s water-treatment plant on Lake Erie, according to the NWF website.
Four decades ago, when it was dubbed “North America’s Dead Sea,” Lake Erie was plagued by similar blooms, along with periodic fires on a tributary, the Cuyahoga River. Public outrage over these incidents helped spawn the nation’s environmental movement — in particular the federal Clean Water Act, which along with billions of dollars in U.S. and Canadian investment, brought the waterway back to life.
But since the late 1990s Lake Erie has seen a resurgence in blooms of toxin-producing algae and other organisms. Phosphorus-rich manure and chemical fertilizers applied to more than 4 million acres of farmland — primarily planted with corn and soybeans — drain into the watershed and eventually empty into Lake Erie, the group says.
The Environmental Working Group has followed suit, saying more ethanol translates to more carbon emissions, more toxic pollutants in drinking water and more toxic algae blooms.
“Ironically, the ethanol industry’s efforts to increase the ethanol content of American fuel comes as the Des Moines Water Works is pursuing an intense lawsuit against upstream Iowa counties for polluting local waterways with billions of tons of nitrate pollution,” the group’s website says. “The principal culprit behind that pollution is nitrogen in fertilizers and manure, which are being spread on millions of acres of Iowa cornfields cultivated mostly for ethanol production.”
The Lake Erie Marine Trades Association says walleye catches on Lake Erie have diminished about 20 percent from the 5 million recorded in the recent past. A charter fleet of more than 400 boats that once catered to tourists has dropped nearly 50 percent. The fish are gone from huge portions of central Lake Erie because of algae-created “dead zones” that lack oxygen in the water, Trade Only blogger Norm Schultz reported in 2014.
The EPA announced grants in 2014 to four research institutions for innovative and sustainable water research to manage harmful nutrient pollution. The agency says nutrient pollution is one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems and is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways. Research has linked a large oxygen-depleted dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to ethanol production, as well as storm-water runoff and industrial activities.
The NMMA has endorsed isobutanol as an alternative to ethanol, but it’s still in development on the commercial level, Lewan says. “It’s not as readily available as ethanol. I believe Gulf Marine has made it available for some of its on-water locations.”
The corn industry has been “somewhat resistant” to invest in technologies to make biofuels such as isobutanol on a large scale, he says. “It’s easy for corn ethanol producers to continue to produce corn ethanol and keep gaining profits from that, but they aren’t making that next step,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s as easy as flipping a switch, but that was one of the original goals of the RFS,” Lewan agrees. “So I think as we’re looking at ways to come up with a workable solution, we should be continuing to work on biofuels like isobutanol that are safe. We shouldn’t be focusing on fuels that are proven to be unsafe for boats and motorcycles and lawnmowers.”
Nessenson does not see isobutanol becoming a viable substitute anytime soon, but only because the infrastructure is there for ethanol, not isobutanol.
“It’s a better option, but the drawbacks are cost and distribution,” he says.
In the absence of an alternative or amended legislation, the blend wall is something that’s not going to go away.
“It’s going to get more difficult for refiners to meet ethanol mandated requirements,” Nessenson says. “And it will continue to impact the marine and marina industry.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue.