Battle brews over ethanol content

12/21/2010 12:04 AM

12/21/2010 12:04 AM

NEW YORK — A trade group that includes automotive giants Ford and General Motors has joined forces with other vehicle and engine makers to sound a warning against the government's move to allow more ethanol to be blended with gasoline.

The "blending wall" for fuel sold at the pump — 10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline — hasn't changed in many years, but the Environmental Protection Agency in October raised to 15 percent the proportion of ethanol deemed permissible for newer cars and trucks.

The newly formed Engine Products Group has come out fighting the EPA's 15 percent waiver, claiming the federal ruling could confuse consumers and cause more damage to older engines not designed for a heavier ethanol blend.

The group includes the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers as well as the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute. They're facing off against another powerful lobby: corn and soybean growers, and ethanol makers.

The EPA would require service stations to clearly label their pumps to prevent consumers from buying the wrong fuel.

Engine makers, however, say that the EPA ruling goes beyond what's allowed under the Clean Air Act and that allowing greater amounts of ethanol could end up harming consumers.

The industry group on Monday filed a petition with a U.S. appellate court in Washington challenging the EPA's waiver for the sale of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol — marketed as E15 — for 2007 model year and newer passenger cars and light trucks.

In coming months, the EPA may extend its waiver to include cars and truck made after 2001.

Opponents argue that current off-road equipment "is not designed, built or warranted for mid-level blends and consumers could encounter performance irregularities, increased heat and exhaust temperatures," if they use E15.

The group also complained that the EPA has failed to "put into place an effective, practical or enforceable mechanism to bifurcate the fuels market."

For their part, ethanol supporters, including the Renewable Fuels Association, said the EPA should have done more to support the rollout of E15.

"The only way to meet the nation's energy, economic and environmental goals as put forth in the Renewable Fuels Standard is to increase ethanol consumption," the group said.

Another trade group, Growth Energy, said scientific evidence demonstrates that E15 is safe for all passenger cars on the road.

"Concerns about misfueling are premature, as EPA is drafting a robust labeling rule and will conduct a vigorous public-education campaign, and we are confident that the process will be successful," said Tom Buis, chief executive of Growth Energy. "We don't need a cartel of engine manufacturers who are looking to profit by mandating limits on what rights Americans have to choose their fuel."

The controversy over E15 marks the latest twist in a saga involving gasoline additives.

In recent years, the EPA required refiners to add the chemical MTBE to gasoline, only to ban it after it was found to have fouled drinking water.

And in the 1970s, U.S. policy supported wider use of ethanol through a product commonly known as gasohol. Demand for the product evaporated after a shift in policy, however.

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