By David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau
Washington -- The Environmental Protection Agency last week delayed a decision on whether it will allow an increase in the amount of ethanol mixed into gasoline.
But the EPA suggested it was leaning toward eventual approval, saying current research shows vehicles made in 2001 or later wouldn't be affected by raising the amount of ethanol to as much as 15 percent.
The agency disclosed last Tuesday it will make a final determination by mid-2010 when it completes research on more automobiles.
"While not all tests have been completed, the results of two tests indicate that engines in newer cars likely can handle an ethanol blend higher than the current 10-percent limit," the EPA said. "The agency will decide whether to raise the blending limit when more testing data is available."
The agency was asked by an ethanol trade association, Growth Energy, to increase the amount of ethanol that can be mixed with most gasoline sold at pumps to as much as 15 percent, a mix known as E15.
"We are confident the ongoing tests will further confirm the data we submitted ... to silence those critics, allowing more American-produced energy to enter the market," said Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy.
Most pumps already sell E10, which is 10 percent ethanol.
Bob Dinneen, the Renewable Fuels Association president and CEO, strongly criticized the decision.
"This delay threatens to paralyze the continued evolution of America's ethanol industry. As EPA itself indicated, the scientific data to date has demonstrated no ill effects of increased ethanol use in any vehicle currently on the road. Moreover, this delay will chill investment in advanced biofuel technologies at a critical time in their development and commercialization," Dinneen said.
But automakers and other engine manufacturers praised the decision.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers—a trade group representing 11 automakers including Detroit's Big Three—praised the announcement.
"We are pleased that EPA recognizes the importance of making decisions based on sound
science," said the group's president and CEO Dave McCurdy. "Widespread failures resulting from higher blends of ethanol would be costly to automakers, a setback for the biofuels industry and, most of all, a disaster for the driving public."
Increased ethanol blends could corrode engines that aren't specifically built for E15, according to automakers. It could also affect boats, lawn equipment and snowmobiles, they argue.
"We continue to call for more testing on marine engines and boat fuel systems," said Mat Dunn, the National Marine Manufacturers Association's legislative director. "Any attempt to 'bifurcate' the fuel supply by allowing E15 for only certain automobiles would lead to a myriad of misfueling, liability and consumer safety issues."
Congress has directed the nation to use 11 billion gallons of ethanol next year and 36 billion gallons by 2022—far above current requirements.
EPA's assistant administrator Gina McCarthy said in a letter to Growth Energy that was
seeking the increase that the agency would have to move in order to meet the mandates.
"To achieve the renewal fuel requirements in future years, it is clear that ethanol will need to be blended into gasoline at greater levels than the current limit of 10 percent," McCarthy said in her letter released last Tuesday.
Idea 'Is Premature'
Automakers warn the higher ethanol blend could boost greenhouse gas emissions, damage engines or disable vehicles.
McCurdy wrote a letter to Congress in September urging more research before approving ethanol blends such as E12 or E15.
That idea "is premature, and since EPA has never allowed conventional vehicles to use higher ethanol blends, the research on their potential impacts on vehicles not designed, tested or warranted for their use is incomplete," the letter said.
The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, based in Haslett, MI, warned in comments to the EPA that the increase could do "irreparable harm" to the nation's more than 1.8 million registered snowmobiles and damage the economy of Michigan and other northern U.S. states that rely on snowmobiling for tourism.
Associations representing the nation's 80 million boaters oppose the request, saying it could damage marine engines.
No Harm, Producers Say
In 2007, Congress required the nation to drastically boost the amount of ethanol it uses to 11.1 billion gallons this year, nearly 60 percent more than what the United States used in 2007, and more than 2 billion gallons over 2008. Nearly all of the U.S. ethanol is now corn-based, but research and investment into the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol could lead to production from renewable sources like grass or wood chips. No significant quantities of cellulosic ethanol have been produced.
Ethanol producers point to some studies that suggest higher blends wouldn't harm most engines. The EPA first approved the use of ethanol blends of up to 10 percent in 1978.
Automakers have joined with the oil, ethanol, small engine, marine, outdoor power equipment and motorcycle industries to create a task force, along with the Energy Department and EPA, to assess different blends.
Dubbed the "midlevel ethanol blends research coordination council," the group says Congress needs to allocate money to fund testing.
The automakers wrote Congress recently asking it to set aside $17 million "to complete the necessary vehicle testing."
Congress is also considering whether to force automakers to build more cars that run on nearly all ethanol.
The auto industry has produced 7 million vehicles that can run on E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol, or on regular gasoline. A bill in Congress sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., would require automakers to produce 50 percent of their fleets as E85-compatible by 2012 and 80 percent by 2015. A House version is sponsored by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.
In March 2006, Detroit's Big Three agreed to build 50 percent of their vehicles as flex-fuel vehicles by 2012 under certain conditions. Automakers get credits toward meeting fuel efficiency regulations for building the vehicles.
Many ethanol producers are struggling because motorists consider gasoline prices around $2.63 a gallon affordable, and are not clamoring for a cheaper fuel. E85 is averaging about $2.23 a gallon, but it's 24.1 percent less energy intensive, meaning it costs more to drive on E85 than on gasoline.
Proponents of ethanol say the industry provides American jobs—especially in rural areas—lessens the nation's dependence on foreign oil and provides a steady income for farmers. Michigan has five ethanol refineries.
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