Ethanol Questions Fuel a Pushback Over Regulation Changes

Producers are eager to raise ethanol levels, but some groups say that may not be such a good idea.

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As the Bush administration winds down, a controversial energy matter is continuing to stoke debate, largely behind closed doors, among lobbyists, lawmakers, and federal officials: whether to allow motor vehicles to use gasoline containing higher blends of ethanol.

Representatives of several public health, environmental, and manufacturing groups met last week with the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget and asked that more testing be done on car engines before federal ethanol limits are changed, warning that the impact of such an action upon consumers and the environment is not yet fully known.

The question of whether cars can safely run on higher blends is a murky one. At the moment, federal law allows gasoline used in regular cars to contain no more than 10 percent ethanol. The ethanol industry says the proportion could go higher—to 15 percent or even 20 percent—without significantly affecting how cars drive or hold up or how their emissions control systems perform. Some industry representatives are asking the Environmental Protection Agency, which has final say in these matters, to quickly approve 12 or 13 percent blends.

But there also is a pushback from several quarters, as reflected in last week's meeting with OMB.

In a letter to the EPA dated December 18, one day before the meeting, several of these groups, including the American Lung Association and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, wrote that there "has not been sufficient testing of motor vehicle" engines to ensure that higher ethanol blends will not cause emissions control devices to fail.

"The test results that do exist," they wrote in the letter, "suggest that mid-level ethanol blends: (1) may be incompatible with today's motor vehicle and non-road equipment engines; (2) may cause a failure of emissions control devices or systems; (3) may defeat these engines' safety features; and (4) may lead to a significant increase in emissions from these engines."

Also among the signatories of the letter were the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, all of which had representatives present at the White House meeting, according to records.

To help answer such questions, researchers with the Department of Energy have undertaken a multiyear study of how different vehicles perform, over tens of thousands of miles, on higher ethanol blends. In an initial report, released this fall, researchers found that 15- and 20 percent blends did not cause any major malfunctions in cars when run for short periods of time but noted that further testing was needed to determine how cars would fare over the course of a lifetime.

The big question now is largely one of timing. The DOE's testing will most likely take another year to complete, if not a bit longer. The ethanol industry would like to see more ethanol in gasoline before then and is encouraging the EPA to change the current rules. It's also still unclear whether the EPA will issue a decision on this matter before Bush's term is over or if it will leave the matter to the Obama administration.