That Cotton-pickin’ Varmint Ethanol vs that Bush Whackin’ Cherry-pickin’ API

January 30, 2013 |

YSvsBugsWho’s right, in the fight of their lives over E15 ethanol blending?

Whose data’s from Toontown, whose from the real-world?

Yesterday the American Petroleum Institute held a press conference in DC to highlight a new report from the Coordinating Research Council on E15 ethanol blends.

The report is here.

Yosemite-SamThe API: Blast your scuppers, now I gotcha, ya’ flea-ridden riff-raff!

Use of the ethanol gasoline blend E15 may endanger fuel systems in millions of 2001 and newer vehicles, says API. The Institute’s Group Director of Downstream and Industry Operations Bob Greco said the fuel system failures could lead to vehicle breakdowns, also cited CRC research completed last year that found E15 could damage valve and valve seat engine parts in vehicles.

“The additional E15 testing, completed this month, has identified an elevated incidence of fuel pump failures, fuel system component swelling, and impairment of fuel measurement systems in some of the vehicles tested. E15 could cause erratic and misleading fuel gauge readings or cause faulty check engine light illuminations.

“It also could cause critical components to break and stop fuel flow to the engine. Failure of these components could result in breakdowns that leave consumers stranded on busy roads and highways. Fuel system component problems did not develop in the CRC tests when either E10 or E0 was used. It is difficult to precisely calculate how many vehicles E15 could harm. That depends on how widely it is used and other factors. But, given the kinds of vehicles tested, it is safe to say that millions could be impacted.”

BugsThe Industry: Eh, what’s up Doc?

The reaction from ethanol trade groups was, as expected, apoplectic — and we’ll get to that in a minute.

EPA and the Department of Energy have not responded to the study, yet — but the DOE did respond to the May 2012 CRC study, and described it as “deeply flawed”.

The issue

Ford and GM say that E15 is safe for all of their 2013 model year cars – and are cautionary about earlier models. The auto industry, taken as a whole, would prefer to see higher blends of ethanol in flex-fuel cars, not the entire fleet – for now.

By contrast, the EPA, based on a review of DOE test results, has declared E15 safe for 2001 model year cars, and later. So what we have is a dispute over E15, vs E10, in non flex-fuel cars for model years 2001-2012. Sounds pretty narrow, doesn’t it?

What’s at stake

Absent the arrival of drop-in fuels in large quantities — or an (unexpected) surge in the near-term availability and popularity of higher blends of ethanol for flex fuel cars — there isn’t going to be any way to meet the Renewable Fuel Standard targets without higher blends of ethanol put into the standard fuel distribution.

The testing and the dispute

The results are the results, and no one is saying that CRC faked the data. The cat fight between ethanol groups and anti-ethanol forces centers on whether the CRC designed a real-world test — that is, would any of these problems really be seen in actual autos on actual roads, and if they are seen, would they really be due to E15 ethanol, as opposed to something else.

The most recent tests focused on the fuel pumps and sensor systems on a series of cars – one set were left to “soak” for 12 weeks, with eight brief starts to measure performance. In the second, pumps were operated continuously for 3,000 hours to “age” them to the equivalent of 90,000 miles. In general, they were a follow-up to earlier work CRC did on E20 — which was understandably rendered less useful when EPA approved E15 use.

The RFA has prepped a response, here.

Meanwhile, we’ll point out three problems that ought to be troubling to thoughtful people.

1. The “Measure Twice, Cut Once” problem. RFA tells us: “The AVFL-15 project was duplicated by Minnesota State University back in 2008 also using an aggressive E20 test fuel on fuel system components.  Conclusions of the report stated “E20 was found to have a similar effect as E10 and gasoline on fuel pumps and sending units.”

2. The sulfur problem. Excessive sulfur can cause fuel sensors to fail – ask CRC, they wrote the book on the topic back in 2009, here.  For that and for emissions reasons, it is limited to 30 parts per million in (corporate averaged) gasoline, and 10 PPM in California. We noted that the CRC soak test pitted 10.4 PPM gasoline against 14.4 PPM E15 ethanol. That’s a 40% “juicing” of the sulfur content — and you would need to blend 37 PPM ethanol with 10.4 PPM gasoline to get that sulfur level.

3. The aging problem. Fuel pumps fail, and they are known to do so, starting at 60,000 miles or so in the real world  — for a host of reasons. Particularly if, as in this case, you run for 90,000 miles without mentioning a change of fuel filter. Ask Ford – they tell you to change the filter every 15,000 miles in the real world, here.

Industry responds.

OK, now over to industry response.

Bob Dinneen, President and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association

“API has absolutely no credibility when it comes to talking about E15.  That point has never been more clear than in this new study in which they ‘cooked the books’ by using an aggressive fuel mix to try and force engine damage.  This isn’t real testing and this certainly isn’t real life.  Enough already with the scare tactics.  E15 is rolling forward and API needs to get out the way of progress that will result in a stronger country, a stronger economy, and stronger, cleaner environment.  E15 will not be stopped by feet dragging and forecasts of fictional faults.”

Ron Lamberty, Senior Vice President for the American Coalition for Ethanol

“This is just another ghost story, told by people who stand to lose market share when consumers finally have access to E15. We shouldn’t be surprised at Big Oil’s latest attempt to scare consumers – they’ve shown no shame in twisting test results to protect their market share. There is a reason that the oil companies don’t want E15 and it has everything to do with protecting the bottom line and nothing to do with protecting consumers.”

Tom Buis, CEO, Growth Energy

“Today’s study is no surprise. This is a classic example of ‘he, who pays the piper, calls the tune.’ Oil companies are desperate to prevent the use of higher blends of renewable fuels. They have erected every regulatory and legal roadblock imaginable to prevent our nation from reducing our dependence on oil. For Big Oil, this is about market share. To see what’s driving them, ‘follow the money,’ as every gallon of renewable fuel that enters the market reduces Big Oil’s market share. Obviously they have deep pockets in which to fund studies that can at best be described as incomplete and cherry picking.

More data for thought

The CRC maintains an extensive library of its ethanol test program, here.

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