Betting on ethanol-blended gasoline

Living on an island on the U.S.-Canada Border is not for everyone. But my family has lived in the Rainy Lake-Rainy River country of northern Minnesota for more than 100 years. It is our way of life.

When your morning commute involves a ride by boat (or snowmobile in winter), a couple of things become real important.

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First, you anticipate everything. You anticipate what you might need and what you should wear. You anticipate travel times and distances. And you always, always anticipate the weather‒what it'll be when you go and what it might be on the return. That's often a detail visitors do not fully appreciate. When a friend arrived two hours late last summer and a large thunderstorm was approaching, he had a long wait at the landing for a ride across the lake.

Second, you rely on engines...heavily. The Yamaha outboard motor stalling during high winds could spell disaster. In a best case, the rocky shore would churn the boat into scrap metal. We try to avoid fixating too much on worst cases. 

Engines and the fuel to power them are central to living here. We anticipate, prepare, and take proper care of our small engines. Not to be overly dramatic, but our lives do depend on them. Boat motors, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, generators, and even chainsaws must function properly or things can get complicated quickly for those living “up North.” 

Two Januarys ago while returning from a spur-of-the-moment snowmobile ride into nearby Voyageurs National Park, my machine started acting up. It was after dark and the wind chill was quickly dropping toward -25F. Foolishly, I had ventured out beyond cell phone coverage, alone with a single snowmobile. If the engine stopped, the backup plan was a 20-mile walk in the wilderness. Yes, the worst case crossed my mind.

Fortunately, the machine died just a mile from home (For gearheads: shredded chaincase chain, stripped gear and a bend in the main shaft). It was an expensive, but valuable lesson that I will not forget. Not anticipating properly or an engine failure can be deadly. 

In a former life, working with fuels was my job. Today, the internet allows me to stay in-tune with the latest fuel news. It’s become noticeable recently there has been an increase in biofuel-hater chatter. I’ve seen some claiming ethanol-blended gasoline doesn't work in or is somehow damaging to outboards and other small engines. That’s surprisingly sad and I beg to differ. With some wanting to undo the Renewable Fuel Standard, it makes me question the timing and political motivations of people behind those claims.

In full disclosure, I'm a renewable fuels advocate and I make no apologies. All I offer to any detractor is that my family has used 10-percent ethanol (E10), 87-octane gasoline in all of our small engines since the late 1970s. E10 has been the standard gasoline in Minnesota for more than 20 years. We do not buy (nor do we buy into a need for) non-oxygenated (non-ethanol) premium gasoline.  Frankly, with the amount of fuel we need and an 80-cent per gallon premium on that so-called premium...well, the anti-ethanol claims sure look to me to be a negative marketing ploy. 

Up here and every day--we prove ethanol-blended gasoline works very well. 

And I bet my life on that.

Gerlach is the former outdoor air director for the American Lung Association of Minnesota and is a former Minnesota Corn Growers Association executive director.