Gulf Oil has opened its fourth E85 fueling station at the Charlton East Service Plaza on the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) for Flex Fuel Vehicles. This new station – can’t call them gas stations anymore – is one of four Gulf E85 fueling facilities at Service Plazas on the toll road. The other alcohol pumps are at Charlton Eastbound, Charlton Westbound and the Westborough service plaza. Gulf opened its first E85 fueling station in Massachusetts at Logan Airport in October of 2008.
It’s estimated that Massachusetts drivers own more than 100,000 FFVs that were produced because automakers receive generous CAFE credits whether or not the alternative fuel is actually used. It’s unknown how many drivers use the alternative fuel, but national consumption statistics suggest it’s slight. Worse, since ethanol does not have the energy density of good old gasoline, E85 needs to be roughly 25% cheaper for it to make economic sense for drivers. So far the fuel is about as successful as the Boston Red Sox this year. As a result, there are only 2,400 E85 ethanol fueling stations in the U.S.
In 2012 about 9% of all fuel used will be from so-called renewable sources. When President Bush and the Republicans passed the controversial Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the stated goal was to get to 20% of all fuel consumed in the country by 2022 to come from U.S.-made renewable fuels. This was to free the U.S. from the ongoing national security issues caused by importing foreign oil from totalitarian and terrorist supporting nations.
This worthy goal was supposed to be helped in the original bill by the elimination of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies big oil received, but – not surprisingly in pay-to-play Washington – the subsidies remained when the final bill emerged from a closed conference committee meeting reconciling House and Senate versions.
Virtually every gallon of gasoline sold in the U.S. right now contains ethanol: 98% as E10 – up to 10% ethanol for conventional autos, and 2% as E85 – 85% ethanol/15% gasoline for use in flex fuel vehicles only. The problem, simply put, is that the U.S. is not even close to achieving the mandated usage goals. That’s why EPA has now approved the use of E15 in late-model vehicles, but not without controversy surrounding the alcohol fuel.
The technical debate around ethanol use involves the fact that it is indeed corrosive, potentially breaking down engine and fuel system seals. Ethanol is also harder to ignite, but once an engine is running, it burns at higher temperatures, potentially damaging engine and exhaust system components, including air-cleaning catalytic converters. It is also not as fuel efficient as gasoline because of its lower energy density. Worse, studies show that corn-derived ethanol takes as much energy to produce as is in the resulting fuel.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed lawsuits challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s partial waiver allowing the use of E15 in 2001 and newer model vehicles. (See D.C. Court Throws Out E15 Lawsuit on a Technicality) Where this leaves E15 is not immediately clear.
The politics here are tangled, and influenced, well dictated by big-money industries. The food interests sued because EPA’s E15 waiver will increase ethanol production and demand for corn will rise significantly making corn prices will rise. Food producers, competing directly with ethanol producers in the market for purchasing corn, will have to pay more for corn.
Petroleum interests say that because of the E15 waiver and the statutory renewable fuel mandate, those in the petroleum industry now must refine, sell, transport, and store E15, incurring significant costs to do so.
At the heart of the controversy are the costs of installing E15 pumps at gas stations, which already are selling fuel with E10, as well as warranty costs at automakers, where typically powertrains are now covered for 100,000 miles if E15 damages engines, as some studies show it does.