Car boost or not? Ethanol debate rages

It’s a dilemma for drivers: Do they choose a petrol that’s cheaper and cleaner even if, as opponents say, it could damage older cars and motorcycles?


Car boost or not? Ethanol debate ragesThat’s the peril and promise of a high-ethanol blend of petrols.

Higher ethanol blends could spread if governments consider there’s a need to require more ethanol in petrol.

As a result, there’s a feverish lobbying campaign by both oil and ethanol interests

In the US, that’s spread Congress to the White House and the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has rejected a challenge by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil industry’s chief lobbying group, to block sales of E15, a blend containing 15 per cent ethanol. The justices left in place a federal appeals court ruling that dismissed challenges by the oil industry group and trade associations representing food producers, restaurants and others.

Tom Buis, chief of Growth Energy, an ethanol industry group, hailed the decision as a victory for US consumers, who will now have greater choice at the pump.

“Now that the final word has been issued, I hope that oil companies will begin to work with biofuel producers to help bring new blends into the marketplace that allow for consumer choice and savings,” Buis said.

The API called the decision a loss for consumers, safety and the environment.

“EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) approved E15 before vehicle testing was complete, and we now know the fuel may cause significant mechanical problems in millions of cars on the road today,” said Harry Ng, API vice president and general counsel.

The ethanol industry calls that a scare tactic and says there have been no documented cases of engine breakdowns caused by the high-ethanol blend since limited sales of E15 began last year.

“This is another example of oil companies unnecessarily scaring people, and it’s just flat-out wrong,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol industry group.

The US dispute over E15 is the latest flashpoint in a long-standing battle over the Renewable Fuel Standard, approved by Congress in 2005 and amended in 2007. The law requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of ethanol into petrol each year as a way to decrease reliance on fossil fuels and lower greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

The EPA has proposed a 16.5 billion-gallon production requirement for ethanol and other petrol alternatives this year, up from 15.2 billion gallons last year. By 2022, the law calls for more than double that amount.

Biofuel advocates and supporters in Congress say the law has helped create more than 400,000 jobs, revitalised rural economies and helped lower foreign oil imports by more than 30 per cent while reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

But the oil industry, refiners and some environmental groups say the standard imposes an unnecessary economic burden on consumers. Using automotive fuel that comes from corn also has significant consequences for agriculture, putting upward pressure on food prices, critics say.

“The ever increasing ethanol mandate has become unsustainable, causing a looming crisis for petrol consumers,” said the API’s Greco.

“We’re at the point where refiners are being pressured to put unsafe levels of ethanol in petrol, which could damage vehicles, harm consumers and wreak havoc on our economy.”

Ethanol supporters say E15 is cheaper than conventional petrol and offers similar mileage to E10, the version that is sold in most US stations.

Scott Zaremba, who owns a chain of gas stations in Kansas, scoffs at claims that E15 would damage older cars.

“In the real world I’ve had zero problems” with engine breakdowns, said Zaremba, whose station in Lawrence, Kansas, was the first in the nation to offer E15 last year.

But Zaremba said he had to stop selling the fuel this spring after his petrol supplier, Phillips 66, told him he could no longer sell the E15 fuel from his regular black fuel hoses. The company said the aim was to distinguish E15 from other petrol with less ethanol, but Zaremba said the real goal was to discourage use of E15. New pumps cost more than $US100,000.

The American Automobile Association, for now, sides with the oil industry. The motoring club says the government should halt sales of E15 until additional testing allows ethanol producers and car manufacturers to agree on which vehicles can safely use E15 while ensuring that consumers are adequately informed of risks.

A spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 major car makers, said E15 gas is more corrosive and the EPA approved it before it could be fully tested.

Older cars were “never designed to use E15,” spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said. Use of the fuel over time could create significant engine problems, she said.

The API cites engine problems discovered during a study it commissioned last year, but the US Energy Department called the research flawed and said it included engines with known durability issues.


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