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Consumer protection is a key issue for E15

02.01.2011  |  Drevna, Charles T. ,  National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, Washington, DC

NPRA wants to be sure that adding greater amounts of ethanol to gasoline is safe and will not cause engine damage

Keywords: [ethanol] [refining] [EPA] [motor vehicles] [gasoline] [blend wall]

Americans have long counted on our nation’s petroleum refineries to provide them with safe, affordable, efficient and reliable gasoline and diesel fuel for their vehicles and outdoor power equipment.

Unfortunately, a decision last October by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to authorize the sale of gasoline containing 15% ethanol (E15) for late-model vehicles—up from the current limit of 10% ethanol (E10)—could reduce the safety of the gasoline Americans rely on.

Concern about the potential safety threat of a 50% increase in the amount of ethanol in gasoline motivated many refiners and the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), to call on the EPA to conduct thorough and objective scientific tests on the impact of E15 on gasoline engines before authorizing use of the fuel.

Unfortunately, the EPA rejected our call and decided to rush to judgment, under pressure from the ethanol industry. As a result, we believe the EPA decision approving E15 for limited use was a disservice to the American consumer.

NPRA is not anti-ethanol—our members blend it with gasoline every day to manufacture the E10 fuel that safely powers most US vehicles. We simply want to be sure that adding greater amounts of ethanol to gasoline is safe and will not cause engine damage.

Following the old proverb to “look before you leap,” we believe that learning more about E15 before approving its use is just common sense.

Because of our concern with consumer protection, NPRA has filed a lawsuit asking a US appeals court to overturn what we believe was the EPA’s premature and unwise decision to approve the use of E15 in cars and light trucks for the 2007 and later model years.


Based on experience with leaded and unleaded gasoline years ago, we know that millions of consumers would no doubt use the wrong fuel for the wrong vehicle—a problem called misfueling—if E15 becomes widely available.

No matter what warning signs the EPA requires gasoline retailers to post at their pumps, many consumers would undoubtedly pump E15 into older cars and trucks and use it in outdoor power equipment, motorcycles, boats and snowmobiles.

Some of this misfueling would be unintentional—consumers not paying attention to warning labels on pumps when they drive up in their older vehicles, or filling gasoline cans to run their lawnmowers and chain saws after they fill up their cars without going to a different pump.

Some misfueling would be deliberate because E15 may be slightly cheaper than E10 gasoline at times, due to variability in the price of oil. Many consumers would not realize that ethanol packs less energy than gasoline and, hence, gives them lower mileage, canceling out the value of a slightly lower price.

The EPA’s decision threatens consumer safety in numerous ways, even if we assume—and we do not—that testing has proven conclusively that E15 is safe for cars and light trucks from 2007 and later model years.

Misfueling could cause costly damages to all sorts of gasoline engines. Snowmobile engines could conk out in the middle of the frozen wilderness, and boat engines could fail in the middle of the ocean—stranding people in life-threatening conditions. Chain saws could overheat and run when their operators wanted to turn them off, endangering operator safety.

NPRA members don’t want the gasoline they manufacture to cause these kinds of problems for consumers. Like any manufacturer, refiners know the truth of the Ford Motor Co. slogan of the 1990s—“quality is job one.” And no element of quality is more important than safety.

Refiners are concerned that if E15 causes engine problems—particularly those that lead to injuries or worse for consumers—a wave of class-action liability lawsuits could follow, seeking billions of dollars in damages.

Significantly, the ethanol industry has refused to accept liability for engine damage that could be caused by E15. Ethanol producers are happy to profit from E15, but leave it to refiners, retailers and others to remain liable for any damages that E15 might cause.

The good news for consumers is that the EPA’s decision does not require refiners or retailers to blend or sell E15 and does not require consumers to buy the fuel. Based on initial opposition to E15—not just from refiners and retailers, but also from the auto, boat, snowmobile and outdoor power equipment industries—it is not likely that E15 will become widely available anytime soon.

Nevertheless, NPRA is concerned about harm that E15 could cause to American consumers should it come into widespread use without adequate testing.

We are also concerned about procedural irregularities that the EPA engaged in to cut corners to approve the use of E15 before its use has been justified by scientific testing.

For example:

• The Clean Air Act clearly requires that any group petitioning the EPA for a waiver to change the blend of ethanol in gasoline provide all the information necessary to approve the waiver. But Growth Energy—the ethanol industry group seeking the E15 waiver—failed to do this, since substantial additional testing by the EPA and the US Department of Energy (DOE) was required. We believe yet more testing and evaluation of data is needed.

• The EPA based its E15 partial-waiver decision on studies submitted to the public rulemaking docket on the day before the EPA announced the partial waiver, providing no time for stakeholder review or meaningful public comment on crucial information used to justify the approval of E15. The EPA’s partial-waiver decision was based almost entirely on data submitted to the record after the public comment period closed in 2009. We believe this is a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act.

These irregularities are important—not just minor technicalities.

If the EPA or any federal agency is allowed to operate outside the constraints of the law, a dangerous precedent would be set, usurping the power of our elected representatives in Congress to pass laws limiting the powers of the executive branch of government. This would open up a Pandora’s box of problems in the future, no matter who is president and no matter what political party is in power at any given time.

We believe testing of E15 should continue and be broadened to determine which engines—if any—can safely use the higher ethanol blend.

Things not tested for.

DOE testing of E15 simply looked at the ability of the pollution control equipment of some cars to stand up to E15. The DOE did not conduct needed testing to determine the impact of E15 on:

• Engine durability

• Tolerance of the check-engine light

• Durability of other components, such as the fuel pump and the fuel level sensor

• Evaporative emissions from fuel leaks and permeation, such as vapors leaking out of an idle car with the engine off and parked outside on a hot and sunny day.

Extensive testing in all of these areas is well underway—with the knowledge of both the EPA and DOE—by the privately funded Coordinating Research Council. However, those tests require more time for completion.

Many issues of public policy are remote and don’t directly affect the majority of Americans. The fate of E15 is not one of these.

The US Department of Transportation estimates there are about 255 million cars and passenger trucks on the road in the US. Millions of Americans own boats, motorcycles, snowmobiles, lawnmowers, chain saws, and other products that run on gasoline. So the safety of E15 is an issue that directly affects just about every American family.

The EPA is being sued by a broad range of organizations that object to its E15 decision on a number of grounds. These include claims by the food industry that using more ethanol in gasoline would drive up corn prices and thus raise the price of many food items, and claims by environmentalists that expanded ethanol production and use would harm the environment.

We trust the courts will give the issue of E15 the serious consideration it deserves.

NPRA believes that, right now, there are just too many unanswered questions about E15 to allow approval of its use. Instead of asking the American people to pump first and ask questions later, the EPA should get more answers first to the many questions remaining about the safety of E15. HP

The author 

Charles T. Drevna is the president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), a national trade association with more than 450 members, including those who own or operate virtually all US refining capacity and most all petrochemical manufacturers in the US. Prior to his election as president in 2007, Mr. Drevna served as NPRA’s executive vice president and director of policy and planning. Mr. Drevna has an extensive background in energy, environmental and natural resource matters, with more than 36 years of broad energy industry experience in legislative, regulatory, public policy and marketplace issues. Prior to joining NPRA, Mr. Drevna served as director of state and federal government relations for Tosco, Inc., the nation’s largest independent petroleum refiner, where he was responsible for liaison with Congress, federal regulatory agencies and state governments. Mr. Drevna also served as director of government and regulatory affairs for the Oxygenated Fuels Association, where he held similar responsibilities, and as vice president at Jefferson Waterman International, a Washington, DC-based consulting group where he specialized in domestic and international energy issues. Mr. Drevna also served as vice president of public affairs at the Sun Coal Co., a Knoxville, Tennessee-based unit of Sun Co., Inc. (Sunoco), and with the parent company as manager of public policy at its corporate headquarters in Philadelphia. Mr. Drevna has a significant background in environmental management that includes service as director of environmental affairs for the National Coal Association in Washington, DC, and as supervisor of environmental quality control for the Consolidation Coal Co. in Pittsburgh. He received his BA in chemistry from Washington and Jefferson College and performed graduate work at Carnegie-Mellon University. 

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in my comment above, etnhoal production has been growing at 11.3% continuous (that's 12% year-on-year) over the period 1980-2010.What I didn't say above is that the rate seems to have increased, possibly due to higher oil prices. The 1997-2010 growth rate is about 18.8% continuous, equal to 20.7% year-on-year. That is the trend.How reassuring is that "corn crop up 10 percent from last year" now?


Energy policy we agree on! I do think that bio-fuel is very prniismog, but using corn is absurd. It's inefficient, and we're already subsidizing it into oblivion (not to mention the Monsanto factor). There are far better crops that we could be using. I will disagree on the net energy loss being a large concern, though. I used to think the same way, but we have an essentially unlimited amount of energy at our disposal (solar, wind, nuclear, etc), and the challenge is to create *portable* fuel using renewable means. If it takes two units of power plant energy to create one unit of portable energy, it's mostly apples and oranges.

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