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Automakers Sue To Block Expanded Ethanol Usage

Makers claim renewable fuel could damage engines.

by on Dec.21, 2010

Automakers join a lawsuit aimed at blocking the expanded use of ethanol in gasoline.

While most automakers have been encouraging motorists to use ethanol-based E85 fuels in their latest “FlexFuel” models, the industry has joined a lawsuit aiming to block a government-mandated increase in the use of ethanol for older vehicles.

The controversy surrounds a mid-October decision by the Environmental Protection Agency which aimed to increase the amount of ethanol used in gasoline from the current 10% to 15%.  The EPA claims that this partial waiver – which only covers vehicles produced since the 2007 model-year is safe.  But the auto industry and others contend that ethanol could damage the engines of vehicles that haven’t been specifically designed to use it.

The lawsuit was originally filed by Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.  Those groups are now joined by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the Detroit Big Three, Toyota and eight other companies.

The EPA had actually hoped to head off a confrontations with its modified October ruling.  After an extensive delay, the agency approved use of so-called E15 fuel – made up of 85% gasoline and 15% ethanol – for relatively late-model cars and trucks, while further delaying a decision on still older products.  The move would require refiners and their service stations to operate two sets of pumps, one for E15 blends, the other for the current E10 blend, which uses just 10% ethanol.

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But opponents contend that even that slight increase in the amount of the alcohol fuel – typically produced from crops like corn – can be corrosive and that ethanol blends burn hotter, which can further damage engines.

“The safe and reliable use of those products is paramount to us and our customers, and the legal action we take today is to protect those customers,” said Kris Kiser, a spokesman for the Engine Products Group, an umbrella organization representing the various participants in the suit to block the EPA mandate.

The involvement of the auto industry in the lawsuit might seem confusing to some consumers.  Many makers now offer FlexFuel products in their fleets, capable of running on E85, which uses 85% ethanol and only 15% gasoline.  That now accounts for a majority of the products rolling off Detroit’s assembly lines.

General Motors, in particular, has been an avid proponent of the use of E85, even launching a campaign called “Drive Yellow” to promote the alternative fuel.  And it has teamed up with producers of cellulosic ethanol, a means of making the alcohol by using waste rather than food stocks.

But industry representatives stress that FlexFuel products require extensive modifications, such as the use of corrosion-resistant stainless steel fuel lines, and that their engines have either been updated or at least tested to confirm they can handle the fuel.

Proponents of E15 usage insist the modest increase won’t harm even vehicles older than those the EPA’s October mandate covered.

“EPA could have avoided this kind of market confusion by following all the science to its logical conclusion and allowing the use of E15 for all cars and light duty pickup trucks,” asserts the Renewable Fuels Association.

Ethanol producers – which are backed, in turn, by powerful farm lobbies — have had the upper hand in Congress, which suggests environmental regulators were under pressure to approve a switch to E15.  Federal lawmakers just last week approved an extension of a $0.45 a gallon tax credit for producers, which is designed to offset the higher cost of ethanol.

Congress earlier set its own mandate, demanding the use of at least 11 billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2010, and 36 billion gallons by 2022.  The nation will fall short of the current target and likely cannot meet later numbers without boosting the amount of ethanol used in gasoline blends.

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