<< Back to Driving Force, Summer 2013
The Case Against Ethanol
Corn and Fuel Don’t Mix
The Dangers of Pumping Ethanol
Fed a steady diet of corn, a staggering number of vintage vehicles in the United States are now suffering from clogged arteries. The culprit? Ethanol.
The issue is straightforward. Countries around the world are supplementing their gasoline with biofuels, primarily ethanol. In the United States, ethanol is distilled from corn but cellulosic ethanol can also be distilled from switchgrass, sugarcane, wood chips and other agricultural byproducts. Supplementing the petroleum-based fuel supply in this manner may be a well-intentioned effort to reduce oil dependency, but it is not cost-effective and results in severe consequences to your collector vehicle’s engine.
Most new vehicles are constructed with materials that resist ethanol’s potentially harmful properties when small concentrations of the biofuel are used, such as 10% ethanol by volume (E10). However, that is not the case with older cars and current high-performance specialty parts. Condensation created by this gasoline can damage engines and result in corrosion, rust, clogging and deterioration of fuel-system components.
The U.S. Congress enacted the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in 2005 and then set ambitious mandates for the amount of ethanol to be blended into gasoline each year, going from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. In order to meet the ever-growing RFS biofuel mandate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently permitted the sale of 15% ethanol (E15) in gasoline. In the process, the EPA acknowledged that E15 poses a risk to older cars and therefore made it “illegal” to fuel pre-’01 vehicles. However, the agency is only requiring a gasoline-pump warning label to alert motorists that E15 could potentially cause equipment failure in older vehicles.
The EPA’s decision has spawned a huge battle across America. A coalition of unlikely partners has come together to fight E15. They include organizations such as the SEMA Action Network (SAN) representing collector cars and their owners, along with the boating industry, lawn-equipment manufacturers and the oil industry. It also includes the food industry (corn prices are increasing as a portion of the crop is being diverted to fuel) and environmentalists (the land, transportation and energy costs to produce ethanol undermine the benefits).
The battle’s outcome is still unknown. The EPA’s decision is being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Congress, lawmakers are considering legislation to ban E15 and also reduce the RFS mandates, the driving force behind E15. Both H.R. 875 in the U.S. House of Representatives and S. 344 in the U.S. Senate are supported by the SAN. A timeframe for resolving the debate is unclear, but the issue has become very contentious.
While it is now legal to sell E15 in America, there are only a handful of stations currently marketing the product. The infrastructure for most stations has not yet been certified for the fuel. More importantly, most automakers have not certified their vehicles for E15. Therefore, they may void the warranty for any E15-related damage.
This year, states such as Florida, Maine, Oregon and West Virginia have taken the lead in dealing with the ethanol issue on a local level. In fact, legislation to repeal the requirement that all gasoline offered for sale in the state contain a percentage of ethanol is on a fast track in Florida. As this article went to print, the bill had been approved by the Florida House and Senate and sent to the governor for his signature and enactment into law. Currently, Florida requires that all gasoline sold by a supplier, importer, blender or wholesaler contain 9%–10% ethanol, or other alternative fuel, by volume.
For auto enthusiasts in the United States, the message to lawmakers and regulators about ethanol has been clear: “Hit the brakes on E15.”