There's a lot of talk nowadays about renewable energy and energy independence. One product of such chatter is a new blend of gasoline called E15, but not everyone is happy to see it coming down the pipeline.
Ethanol is a common additive in gasoline, thanks in large part to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (PDF). Today, it's found primarily in two fuel forms: gasoline blends of up to 10% ethanol (known as E10), which can be used in most modern vehicles, and E85, which is 85% ethanol and can be used only in specially designated cars and trucks.
The Energy Independence and Security Act mandated that the U.S. gradually increase its production of biofuels, from 4.7 billion gallons per year in 2007 to 36 billion gallons per year in 2020. The Act set specific targets for different types of biofuel (e.g. "renewable fuel", "advanced biofuel", "cellulosic biofuel", etc.), and to help meet those goals, the Environmental Protection Agency recently approved a new ethanol blend: E15.
As you might imagine, E15 consists of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline. Fans of ethanol laud it because it further reduces tailpipe emissions and increases the amount of renewable material used in America's gastanks. They also say that ethanol is less damaging on engines because it runs cooler than pure gasoline.
The problem with E15
However, it's not all rainbows and unicorns.
For starters, E15 magnifies the complaints of many ethanol detractors -- namely, that it's not as environmentally friendly as you might think. Not only does the production of crops for ethanol often lead to deforestation, but it also puts a huge dent in global corn supplies, which isn't exactly helping the growing food crisis. Because of the latter problem, a handful of governors and nearly 200 members of Congress asked the EPA to suspend the Energy Independence and Security Act's ethanol provisions back in October, but the EPA declined their request.
But it's not just forests and food banks that stand to suffer: ethanol opponents say that the stuff isn't so great for vehicles, either. In May, automakers announced the findings of a two-year study of E15, which revealed that the higher proportion of ethanol can actually damage engines. That could result in serious problems for new vehicles, and potentially expensive fixes for automakers.
Even oil companies dislike higher ethanol requirements -- which is odd, because ethanol is less efficient than gasoline, meaning that oil companies will sell more of the blended stuff. However that increase in potential sales is outweighed by the high cost of ethanol. As a result, last week, the industry announced a lawsuit to overturn the ethanol-in-gasoline mandate.
Now, one of America's foremost travel authorities, AAA, has weighed in. The organization complains that only 12 million of the 240 million light-duty vehicles on U.S. roads are approved to use E15 gasoline, or 5% of the total. And yet, AAA claims that 95% of drivers haven't even heard of E15 and remain unaware of its potentially damaging effects.
AAA also cites "engineering experts" (possibly the Coordinating Research Council, which conducted the automaker study mentioned above), who say that E15 can cause "accelerated engine wear and failure, fuel-system damage and false 'check engine' lights" in cars that aren't approved for the new fuel.
According to AAA, the list of E15-approved vehicles is fairly small: Porsches from the 2001 model-year and later; GM vehicles from the 2012 model-year and later; and Ford vehicles from the 2013 model-year.
But wait, it gets worse. In a press release, AAA says that BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen have all announced that their warranties don't cover problems related to the use of E15. And GM, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo have said that E15 "does not comply with the fuel requirements specified in their owner’s manuals and may void warranty coverage" (emphasis ours). Ouch.
And so, AAA is taking two courses of action:
1. It's asking the federal government to delay the rollout of E15 until consumers have been better educated about the new fuel and until gas stations improve their labeling for E15.
2. It's encouraging consumers to read up on the potential dangers of E15 to make sure they understand its effect on vehicles (and their warranties).
The good news
There's no indication whether or not the EPA or other governmental agencies will listen to complaints brought by AAA. But even if E15 moves forward, it won't arrive at your corner gas station overnight. The infrastructure requirements alone are enough to delay E15's rollout significantly, since stations will need to add special tanks and pumps for the new fuel. And technically speaking, gas stations aren't required to sell E15 at all.
Have a look at the E15 infographic above -- distributed not by AAA, but by the folks at SmarterFuelFuture.org -- and share your thoughts about the new fuel in the comments below.