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Ethanol in Gasoline: Germans Hate It, but That Doesn't Mean Americans Will

Germans are in an uproar over so-called E10 gasoline, which contains 10 percent ethanol as an emissions-reduction measure. So you might think that the impending introduction of E15 in the U.S. -- which is due this summer -- could fuel a similar round of boycotts and protests.

Chances are good you'd be wrong. American consumers hardly raised a peep when E10 was introduced here. And in fact, it's the oil and auto companies who say they're most concerned about E15 -- whether honestly or not.

Differing strokes, different folks
The gulf between American and German drivers is actually fairly wide. The U.S. is the world's largest ethanol producer, there are more than eight million "flex fuel" vehicles capable of running on an E85 blend, and ethanol producers have long made the case for the benign nature of the fuel as an additive. Ethanol is made from corn, and the Midwest farm states constitute an important political lobby for ethanol -- and for E15.

The Germans are unique even in Europe for their interest in performance and the technical details of their engines, and their concern over anything that could harm them. The French calmly accepted E10, but in Germany it has led to widespread protests and consumer boycotts, despite the green proclivities of the electorate. Ethanol has 25 percent lower energy content, and that alone has led German drivers to avoid E10 and buy 98 Super Plus high test instead.

The German government also botched the E10 introduction earlier this year, failing both to inform customers that the new fuel was coming and to provide much information about which cars could safely use it, leading to widespread rumors about dire consequences.

About half of German gas stations have now stopped selling E10, and BMW had to step in and reassure motorists that the fuel was safe to use in its cars. "Contrary to current media reports which state otherwise, we affirm our declaration that E10 fuels can be safely used in all BMW passenger car models," said Klaus Draeger, a member of the BMW's board of management.

Protests ahead? Nah.
Should we, then, gird for insurrection at the pumps this summer, as government-endorsed E15 rolls out? Not really. The EPA could have handled it better, first declaring last year that the fuel was safe for 2007 and newer vehicles, then waiting until last January to declare it also OK for 2001-2006 cars. Some people may not have gotten the second memo.

An American E15 boycott is unlikely, but that doesn't mean everybody is happy. Refiners and carmakers don't like E15, saying its higher burning temperature could harm engines. "Some ethanol companies want consumers to pump first and ask questions later," said refining association president Charles Drevna in a statement. He described E15 as "a giant science experiment."

The Auto Alliance, representing 12 carmakers, isn't in open insurrection, but it thinks the feds are rushing E15 into production without adequately researching its effects. "We have no reason to believe that EPA has adequately addressed the concerns that the Alliance and others have raised for months now related to the adequacy of testing," the Alliance said.

The concern is out there, but at the current noise level it's not likely to filter down to consumers making choices at the pump. In fact, E15 sounds a lot like E10, and that's already at gas stations all over the country. If widespread breakdowns and poor performance had resulted, people would probably be in the streets now, but instead an eerie calm prevails as E15 heads our way.

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