For months, the corn ethanol industry has been pushing the Obama administration for permission to increase the amount of ethanol that can be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply.
But the ethanol industry’s opponents are launching a counterattack. And it’s a big one. Last week, a coalition of 36 groups sent a letter to the leaders of the Senate asking them to reject “any attempt to attach a mid?level ethanol authorization amendment during the Senate’s consideration of energy legislation in the coming weeks and months. Such an amendment would be bad for consumers, bad for safety, bad for the environment, and, by placing politics over sound science, bad public policy.”
The group, which has dubbed itself FollowTheScience.org, may be the oddest coalition in modern American politics. Indeed, the ethanol scam is so offensive that it has united groups ranging from the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, to the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.
Members of the coalition include:
American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI)
American Lung Association
American Meat Institute (AMI)
American Petroleum Institute (API)
American Sportfishing Association (ASA)
American Watercraft Association (AWA)
Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM)
Association of Marina Industries
Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society/ESPN Outdoors
Boat Owners Association of the United States (BoatU.S.)
Center for Coastal Conservation
Clean Air Task Force
Coastal Conservation Association (CCA)
Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF)
Engine Manufacturers Association (EMA)
Environmental Working Group
Friends of the Earth
Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)
The Hispanic Institute
Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC)
National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS)
National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA)
National Boating Federation (NBF)
National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR)
National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA)
National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA)
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI)
Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA)
Petroleum Marketers Association of America (PMAA)
Sierra Club Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council (SBE Council)
Snack Food Association (SFA)
Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America (SIGMA)
Specialty Vehicle Institute of America (SVIA)
Can They Stop It?
Obviously, the members of the coalition have a variety of interests, but they are united in their view that any increase in the amount of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline will be harmful. They are jumping into the fray now because the Obama administration, which was expected to approve the increase in the ethanol blend rate in June, has delayed action on ethanol until the fall.
In June Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (former governor of Iowa, the nation’s biggest ethanol-producing state) said, “I’m very confident that we’re going to see an increase in the blend rate.” The “blend rate” refers to the federal rule that limits ethanol blends to no more than 10 percent for standard automobiles. Commonly known as “E10,” the fuel contains 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent alcohol. The Obama administration bailout, which would come via approval from the EPA, will likely allow gasoline retailers to blend up to 15 percent ethanol into US gasoline supplies.
And that is a big worry to automakers, boat owners, and lots of others. For instance, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which represents the recreational boating industry, said in a filing with the EPA that any increase in the amount of ethanol in the US gasoline supply “would be premature, without sufficient scientific basis, and potentially harmful to manufacturers, consumers and the environment.”
The group told the EPA that “engine manufacturers specifically advise consumers in their owner’s manual and warranty documents that usage of incompatible fuel, including gasoline blended with more than 10 percent ethanol-blended gasoline, could void the warranty. All marine engine manufacturers warranty their products up the E10, the current maximum allowable legal limit. Marine engine manufacturers are not in a position to provide warranty support—and have not accrued warranty funds—for products run on fuels containing more than 10 percent ethanol.”
There is plenty of evidence that E10 is already causing damage to boat owners. About two years ago, lawyers in Florida sued a group of oil companies for damage allegedly done to boat fuel tanks and engines from ethanol-blended gasoline. The lawyers were claiming that consumers should be warned about the risk of using the fuel in their boats. The lawyers were denied class certification in their lawsuit late last year and their case was dismissed.
While that litigation has gone away, even a casual Google search turns up stories like this one published in July, in which veteran Texas fishing guide Dickie Colburn details the problems that he has incurred by using ethanol-blended fuel in his boat engines. Indeed, the problems with ethanol-blended gasoline in boats are so well known that many marinas are now sourcing ethanol-free gasoline for their customers.
Add in the potential damage to lawnmowers, weedwhackers, snowmobiles, and other equipment that uses small engines, and the potential damage that could occur from a move to increase the ethanol blend rate becomes obvious. That damage helps explain why the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, which represents companies that make lawnmowers, snowblowers, chainsaws and the like, is part of FollowtheScience.org. The OPEI has said that an increase in the ethanol blend rate “could damage millions of forestry, lawn and garden, and other small engine products currently housed in consumers’ garages.”
Ethanol, which is hydrophilic and corrosive, is simply a poor substitute for refined oil products. And by lavishing subsidies and mandates on the corn ethanol industry (this year alone, federal subsidies to the corn ethanol sector will likely total $5.5 billion) Congress is enriching a very small group of ethanol producers and corn farmers and it is doing so at the cost of consumers and taxpayers. Or in economic terms, Congress is concentrating the benefits while diffusing the costs.
A few months ago, an increase in the ethanol blend rate looked like a certainty. Now, with the anti-ethanol groups on the attack, all bets are off. The good news is that the anti-ethanol forces are on the attack. The bad news: even if they are able to prevent an increase in the ethanol blend rate, the destruction and waste that we are already seeing due to corn-based ethanol will likely be with us for years to come.