I guess this isn’t really the classic “October Surprise,” though the timing certainly appears to be political.
It is no secret at this point that the US EPA is expected this afternoon to announce it plans to allow higher levels of ethanol in gasoline used in newer cars.
The corn lobby has been pushing this idea for many months and this decision appears to be a concession to corn-state politics. As we all know, the Party in Power has been under fire in many such states for alleged environmental zealotry.
But will high-fructose gasoline really be good for clean air? And what could this mean for consumers?
The EPA apparently will note is has reviewed various test results and concluded that increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline from 10% to 15% will not harm vehicles made since 2007. (EPA will defer a related request to permit E15 in older vehicles.)
My sources tell me there could be real concerns and possible pollution increases. As I have been informed, the US Department of Energy (not exactly an unbiased source since its mission is partly to promote “alternative” energy) conducted tests on a relatively small number of newer vehicles, and the test was basically designed in such a way as to show that more ethanol would be no problem. I am further told that, despite the test design, some of the vehicles did exhibit emission increases. As you may know, one well-known earlier study of higher ethanol blends showed more pollution and damage to catalytic converters over time.
An even greater concern with this EPA decision involves so-called “misfueling” (use of the high-fructose gasoline in other engines).
This could lead to even more air pollution. EPA is expected to accompany today’s announcement with proposed labeling requirements aimed to preventing misfueling. As I write this, the White House Office of Management and Budget web site reports that it is still reviewing the EPA labeling proposal:
TITLE: Regulation To Prevent the Misfueling of Vehicles and Engines With Gasoline Containing Greater Than Ten Volume Percent Ethanol and Modifications to the Reformulated and Conventional Gasoline Programs
STAGE: Proposed Rule
ECONOMICALLY SIGNIFICANT: No
RECEIVED DATE: 09/14/2010
LEGAL DEADLINE: None
There is real reason to be concerned that high-fructose gasoline will be used in the wrong engines – especially if the high-fructose variety ends up being somewhat cheaper at the pump because of ethanol subsidies. Some of us so recall that back in the 1970s and 80s, many people kept using cheaper leaded gasoline in cars designed for unleaded. That caused the destruction of catalytic converters and more pollution.
In a bi-partisan July 29 letter sent to EPA by the key chairmen and top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the law makers reminded EPA of this unfortunate experience:
Assuming that EPA has authority to grant a partial waiver, EPA should have a well-thought-out and well-executed plan for avoiding misfueling. Without appropriate safeguards, a partial approval could pose major problems for consumers with vehicles or engines that are not compatible with E 15. Based on the experience with the transition from leaded to unleaded gasoline, a significant amount of accidental or intentional misfueling would be likely. If such misfueling led to operability or durability problems, or increased repair costs, a significant number of consumers could be adversely affected.
Numerous groups – including the American Lung Association, state air pollution regulators and engine makers -- have also warned about misfueling.