Politics & Government

Congressman hails Trump decision on ethanol in gasoline. But could it hurt your car?

A Kansas congressman and ethanol producers are applauding a decision by President Trump to expand the market for automotive fuel containing a higher level of ethanol alcohol. But you should definitely check your car’s owners manual before filling up with E15 or risk engine damage that your warranty won’t cover.

Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Great Bend, said the relaxing of standards on E15 fuel is a godsend for ethanol producers and farmers because it’s expected to boost markets for corn and sorghum. Those grains are common feed stocks for ethanol plants and major Kansas crops.

“This is great, great news for us,” Marshall said. “We have 12 ethanol plants (in Kansas). They impact some 5,000 jobs, so this is a big part of the economies and in so many of those communities, these ethanol plants are the leading employers in town.”

Also on the upside, E15 fuel generally costs “a dime to 20 cents less” than current fuels that are a 10 percent ethanol mix, Marshall said.

But on the downside, some cars aren’t equipped to handle the higher level of ethanol. Using it could damage the engine and void the warranty, manufacturers and opponents of E15 have said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of E15 in all cars built since 2001.

But for years after that, many car manufacturers warned against it.

As a rule of thumb, the newer the car, the more likely it is to be able to use E15.

As E15 has become more available, car manufacturers have responded by switching to parts that are more resistant to higher levels of ethanol in gasoline.

But it’s been an evolving process.

For example, the owner’s manual for the 2018 Nissan Altima says it’s OK to use E15 fuel.

But that’s not the case with the 2017 model. Its owner’s manual contains a strong warning against it: “E15 fuel will adversely affect the emission control devices and systems of the vehicle and should not be used. Damage caused by such fuel is not covered by the NISSAN New Vehicle Limited Warranty.”

The only way to know if your car can safely use E15 is to look it up in the owners manual covering your exact vehicle and model year. If you don’t have your original manual, they can usually be found on the manufacturer’s website for free, or by contacting the dealer.

The change Trump announced Tuesday will allow E15 to be sold during summer months, when it had been banned because of environmental concerns.

It’s a bigger change than it sounds like.

Many stations have declined to offer E15 because they could only sell it for nine months of the year.

The change will encourage more stations to offer E15, “especially your mid-level convenience stores, that have maybe been a little hesitant to install E15 pumps because they didn’t want to have to re-brand them or mess with them in the summertime,” said Tom Willis, CEO of Liberal-based Conestoga Energy, the state’s largest producer of ethanol.

Michael Chisam, CEO of Kansas Ethanol in Lyons, said it will help farmers, especially sorghum producers who have been hard-hit by the trade and tariff conflict between China and the Trump administration.

“It gives us the ability to provide some additional markets for local farmers,” Chisam said. “We grind a lot of sorghum” to make ethanol.

The summer prohibition was based on studies showing that E15 evaporates more rapidly than lower-alcohol fuel in hot weather, contributing to air pollution.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas