Study Claims E15 Ethanol Gas Will Damage New Car Engines

A new study funded by oil companies and automakers released today said that automobile  engines now being sold or already in use in late model production cars can be damaged if they are run on E15, fuel that contains 15% ethanol. Problems included damaged valves and valve seats, which can lead to loss of compression and power, diminished vehicle performance, misfires, engine damage, as well as poor fuel economy and increased emissions. Thousands of dollars in engine repairs could be incurred from using the new fuel, whose use is mandated by Congress with the backing and campaign contributions of the agricultural lobby.

The study was conducted by FEV, also a consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, on behalf of the Coordinating Research Council (CRC), which is also awaiting a court decision from a lawsuit attempting to stop the EPA from going ahead with a requirement that gas stations offer E15 gasoline blends. (See EPA Grants E15 Fuel Waiver for Some Older Vehicles and Oil Refiners Sue Environmental Protection Agency to Stop E15 Ethanol Fuel Sales. Attack on EPA Broadens. )

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.

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 end result.

The problem for automakers and consumers comes from a regulation that applies to existing vehicles on the road, instead of a phase-in for future vehicles. While automakers are now building some vehicles that can safely run of blends containing up to 85% ethanol, CRC said the decision to move to E15 was “premature and irresponsible,” since millions of existing auto engines cannot use the fuel without potential harmful effects.

As of May, no gasoline retailer has yet received EPA’s approval to offer E15, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, which is working with retailers to complete the conditions for E15 implementation. “The RFA is still trying to finalize some outstanding issues with EPA and expect those to be resolved within the month,” said Matt Hartwig, RFA’s communications director.

This latest Big Oil versus Big Agriculture drama started when Growth Energy, an ethanol industry pressure group, petitioned the EPA in March 2009 to raise the limit on ethanol in gasoline from 10% to 15%.  In June 2008, EPA outlined testing needed for the agency to approve a waiver, and EPA requirements then were consistent with test plans developed by the auto and oil industries.

At that time the CRC, composed of engineers from the auto and oil industries, was working with EPA and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on a multi-year study on the effects of higher blends of ethanol. This testing included more than $14.5 million of research sponsored by the auto and oil industries, and $40 million of testing sponsored by the federal government.

However, before those tests were completed — in October 2010 and January 2011– EPA granted “partial” waivers to allow the introduction of E15 into the marketplace for use in model year 2001 and later vehicles.

EPA’s decision was based on a DOE study of the effects of E15 on durability of catalytic converters, the primary pollution control system in a vehicle.  EPA did not wait to consider the results of engine durability tests or for other E15 related research, some of which is still underway.

The latest CRC Engine Durability study took duplicates of eight different vehicle model engines spanning 2001-2009 model years.  All 16 vehicles were tested over a 500-hour durability cycle corresponding to about 100,000 miles of vehicle usage.  A range of engine operating parameters was monitored during the test, including cylinder compression, valve wear, valve leakage, emissions and emissions control system diagnostics.  Two of the engines tested on E15 had mechanical damage.  Another engine showed increased tailpipe emissions beyond the allowable limit.

“Clearly many vehicles on the road today are at risk of harm from E15.  The unknowns concern us greatly, since only a fraction of vehicles have been tested to determine their tolerance to E15,” said Mitch Bainwol, president & CEO, Auto Alliance, which representing automakers was also part of the study.

Not surprisingly, the Department of Energy disagreed. A statement form DOE said in part: “Prior to the CRC’s findings, the Energy Department conducted its own rigorous, thorough and peer-reviewed study of the impact of E15 fuel on current, conventional vehicle catalyst systems. The Energy Department study included an inspection of critical engine components, such as valves, and did not uncover unusual wear that would be expected to impact performance. Rather than using an aggressive test cycle intended to severely-stress valves, the Energy Department program was run using a cycle more closely resembling normal driving. The Energy Department testing program was run on standard gasoline, E10, E15, and E20. The Energy Department test program was comprised of 86 vehicles operated up to 120,000 miles each using an industry-standard EPA-defined test cycle (called the Standard Road Cycle). The resulting Energy Department data showed no statistically significant loss of vehicle performance (emissions, fuel economy, and maintenance issues) attributable to the use of E15 fuel compared to straight gasoline. The Energy Department test program also showed that 10% engine leakdown is not a reliable indicator of vehicle performance. In the Energy Department program, there were vehicles found to exceed 10% leakdown for all fuels, including vehicles running on E0 and E10. There was no correlation between fuel type and leakdown, and high leakdown measurements did not correlate to degradation in engine or emissions performance.”

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 used by 2022 to come from U.S. made renewable fuels 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 going to be helped in the original bill by the elimination of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies going to big oil, 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.

Given decades of failed policies by both the Democratic and Republican parties going back to President Nixon designed to get the U.S. off imported oil, it is tough to be optimistic that something will actually be done by partisans in our bickering national government. (See President Obama outlines Energy Independence Plan, Touting Alternative Fuels, “Safe” Nuclear Power, 33% cut in Oil Imports) Politicians are concerned with winning the next election and spending most of their time securing the funds necessary to finance what will no doubt be the most expensive election in history.

About Ken Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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