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EPA Decision Allowing E15 Ethanol In Gas Smells Like Politics

When you consider the timing, the Environmental Protection Agency's decision Wednesday to allow a 15 percent blend of ethanol (E15) into the gasoline mix (from the current 10 percent) for newer 2007-and-after cars would seem to be motivated largely by politics. We're in a tough reelection campaign for Democrats, and candidates in Midwestern states (where ethanol is a sacrament) want something positive they can take home to the voters.

A positive EPA ruling on E15 was expected, but it's also curious, because in the language of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) it "bifurcates" the U.S. auto market by approving E15 for newer cars only. EPA is saying that its research shows that E15 is safe for newer cars, but it's still working on the rest of the fleet. A decision on 2001 to 2006 models is expected in November, but the EPA says no decision is coming this year on cars that are older than that.

RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen says this ruling "only creates confusion for retailers and consumers alike." And, remember, it's the renewable fuel guys who like E15 â€"- they just want it approved for all cars, all the time. RFA thinks that the safety of E15 for all cars is "well documented."

I see the point about confusion, particularly on the gas station level. We're expecting pump jockeys to know that they're looking at a 2007-or-newer car, and use the right nozzle. At self-service places, we're expecting car owners to be up on the latest nuances of the law.

The EPA says it gets the confusion thing, and so is planning E15 labeling requirements -- all the pumps will need to specify their ethanol content. And a review will be conducted quarterly to make sure retail stations comply. This isn't likely to quiet the controversy.

Higher ethanol blends have other issues, including lower energy content (it has 34 percent less energy per volume than gasoline), which could affect fuel economy. Cars will definitely run fine on ethanol, however, provided they've been designed for that. There are millions of flex-fuel vehicles on the road capable of running E85 ethanol, largely because the Big Three get clean car credits for building them. But most of those cars run on gasoline exclusively because E85 isn't widely available.

Automakers and dealers certainly aren't happy with the decision. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) said it remains concerned about the "'backward compatibility' of E-15 -- that is, the degree to which E15 might damage older cars and trucks when it is mistakenly pumped into them. The main issue for dealers and their service departments is the possibility of misdiagnosis and repair of vehicles resulting from the use of the wrong fuel."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers joined with 12 other car-related, fuel and engine associations back in January to warn that E15 could hurt the engine and catalytic converter, as well as affect vehicle diagnostic tests and cause problems with the check engine light. Charles Territo, a spokesman for AAM, told me his members were "very concerned."

On Wednesday, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said that E15 "does not harm emission control equipment in new cars and light trucks." She has her motivations to say that, because her office is trying to comply with a 2007 law mandating an increase in renewable fuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

There will be more jockeying on this issue. As the decision stands, nobody is particularly happy. But it's still "ethanol positive," and that may be enough for worried politicians in the Midwest.

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Photo: Flickr/Keishka