New study green lights EPA to OK 15 percent ethanol blend for older cars

With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the turmoil in the Middle East, the continuing concern with greenhouse gases and the need to generate jobs in cutting-edge industries, President Obama has called for a “national mission” to end America’s addiction to imported oil.

This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to announce a crucial decision about the future of the only fuel currently available to replace and reduce oil imports: American ethanol.

After almost a year of delay, the EPA will finally release a ruling on whether to increase the ethanol content allowed in gasoline blends from 10 percent (E10) to 15 percent (E15). Unfortunately, EPA has hinted it will limit the use of E15 to newer vehicles — those made more recently than 2001 or perhaps even 2007.

Such a decision would have the effect of eliminating much of the market for this clean-burning, American-made biofuel, while creating confusion among consumers and gasoline retailers alike.

Would service stations be required to have separate pumps for newer and older cars? Would motorists be required to memorize the latest EPA policies, and would teenagers have to remember the model years of their parents’ cars just to fuel their vehicles?

Fortunately, there is no research suggesting that E15 damages cars and other vehicles, whatever their vintage. In order to further explore this issue, the Renewable Fuels Association commissioned a study by the internationally recognized automotive engineering firm, Ricardo, Inc.

The study focused on light-duty road vehicles (cars, pickup trucks, vans and smaller SUVs) from the model years 1994 through 2000 that are still in use today. Throughout the nation, there are at least 62.8 million of these cars, vans and trucks, accounting for about 25 percent of the total U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet. Ricardo, Inc. studied a sampling of the top-selling vehicles from this period from the six leading automotive manufacturers: General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

The findings are good news for motorists, gasoline suppliers, the auto industry, public policymakers and everyone else who cares about the nation’s economy, environment and energy security. As Ricardo, Inc. reports: “The conclusion of the engineering analysis of the vehicles studied is that the adoption and use of E15 should not adversely affect properly engineered vehicles nor should it cause them to perform in a sub-optimal manner when compared to their performance using E10 blends.”

As with other cars, vans and small trucks, these vehicles would be shifting from 10 percent to 15 percent ethanol blends, not from straight gasoline. Moreover, whatever fuel they use, vehicles from 2000 or earlier are out of warranty.

Keeping these factors in mind, the study found no real difference in emissions between E10 and E15, and only slight increases in temperature that would not cause catalytic converters to fail.

Among other mechanisms, the study found the change in ethanol blends would have a low impact on air-fuel control, fuel system monitors, catalyst monitors, evaporative system monitors and hot-fuel handling and “medium” impacts on cold-start drivability.

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These findings bolster the compelling case for EPA to authorize higher ethanol blends. According to an analysis conducted by the EPA itself, ethanol reduces direct greenhouse gas emissions by 61 percent compared to gasoline. In addition to its environmental advantages, a growing renewable fuels sector strengthens the nation’s economy and energy security. Last year, the ethanol industry produced a record 10.75 billion gallons of the biofuel, reducing demand for imported oil by 364 million barrels while supporting almost 400,000 jobs in every sector of the economy.

So far, these benefits have been held back by the “Blend Wall.” Because of EPA’s current cap on the amount of ethanol that can be combined with gasoline, the potential domestic market for ethanol tops out at about 12.5 to 13.5 billion gallons.

Thankfully, the latest research gives EPA the green light to tear down the “Blend Wall” and clear the way for further progress toward America’s clean-energy future.

Bob Dinneen is president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, the national trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry.