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Relax: E15 Gasoline Won't Arrive For A Year Or More, GAO Says

 
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2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

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E15 gasoline has been much in the news lately, but all the hullabaloo may have been a bit premature.

The U.S. Government Accounting Office, better known as The Gummint's in-house auditor, says that E15 won't appear at the pumps until sometime next year.

Just because the EPA has allowed the sale of E15 doesn't mean that it'll actually happen, the GAO report points out, accurately. And it identifies "several challenges" to actual distribution of E15.

Health and safety regulations and test procedures to cover the new blend still have to be written.

Corn Ethanol Pump

Corn Ethanol Pump

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Underground storage tanks, pump plumbing, and hoses and nozzles may have to be replaced, because the higher ethanol percentage could cause existing infrastructure to leak.

The GAO notes that it will take significant time to roll out even a few hundred of the "blender pumps" that provide either E10 or E15 on demand.

In fact, an EPA representative said earlier this week that not a single manufacturer or importer has submitted an application to sell E15.

And this is hardly a surprise to the EPA. In May, assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus told the GAO in a letter that the agency would "continue to work with other Federal agencies, industry and other stakeholders" on these issues.

The agency "anticipate[s] that additional, targeted research" may be required to "assist tank owners to safely transition to new fuels.

But between the costs of upgrading pumps, plumbing, and tanks, plus a possible Senate agreement to kill ethanol subsidies, distributors may not see any economic advantage in switching to the new blend.

Proposed EPA E15 gasoline pump warning label for ethanol content

Proposed EPA E15 gasoline pump warning label for ethanol content

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We may still endure a great deal more yelling back and forth about whether E15 is fine for cars from 2001 and later (the EPA's position) or a potential threat to those cars that could cost car owners ZILLIONS OF DOLLARS (the automakers' position).

Here's where it sits today: Last month, the EPA released warning label designs for any pumps that contain E15. Their purpose is to warn drivers who fill up that this new blend of gasoline should only be used in cars built in 2001 or later.

While a study last fall by consulting firm Ricardo showed "minimal damage" even to cars built before 2000, parts of Congress are still up in arms over the E15 rollout.

Last week, on the House floor, several Representatives cited letters sent to the EPA by automakers warning that the use of E15 in vehicles not designed for it could damage engines, void warranties, and reduce gas mileage.

It's true that E15 will cut gas mileage, slightly: A gallon of pure ethanol has less energy than a gallon of pure gasoline, so raising ethanol from 10 percent (today's standard, in effect since 1978) to 15 percent reduces the energy content of that gallon by 3.4 percent.

The EPA responded to the House comments by reiterating that there is no evidence that E15 will damage cars from 2001 and later.

Last December, automakers had sued to stop the rollout of E15--a case that's still active. In February, the House of Representatives voted to block that rollout as well, though the Senate didn't.

[Automotive News (subscription required)]

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