Currently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a study that might result in the level of ethanol in gasoline rising from the current ten-percent limit to 15 percent. For most Americans this development doesn’t seem to affect much in the course of their daily lives, but for local boaters, it might well result in a lot of problems and a good amount of expense.

The fuel additive has already caused many issues for boaters across the country and a five-percent increase will likely only escalate the complications the fuel additive brings.

It would seem that, on the surface, the increase is nothing but a good thing as ethanol, a clean-burning, high-octane motor fuel produced from renewable sources, brings with it many positives. It burns efficiently in modern automobiles, in addition to having many environmental and political upsides. While ethanol has its detractors, it also has many advocates, and it is quickly becoming part of our everyday world.

“At its most basic, ethanol is grain alcohol, produced from crops such as corn,” states the American Coalition for Ethanol. “Because it is domestically produced, ethanol helps reduce America’s dependence upon foreign sources of energy.”

Ethanol is also said to reduce carbon monoxide emissions, burn more cleanly and completely than gasoline and is highly biodegradable. For these reasons the EPA is considering raising the limits that now currently exist. However, there is a snag, and unfortunately for recreational boaters the snag involves them.

“It’s problematic and has been for a number of years,” said Greg Schem, owner of the Marina del Rey Fuel Dock and the Boat Yard in Marina del Rey. “At the Boat Yard we see it first hand — if the boats were built with fiberglass storage tanks, the alcohol tends to delaminate tanks and it becomes very expensive to remove and replace them. It’ll also tend to corrode aluminum tanks quicker. We’ve had to replace quite a few of those.”

He continued, “Other effects I’ve personally experienced is with smaller outboard motors. The water will come out a solution and corrode the inside of a carburetor. We’re seeing smaller motors, after only two or three years of operation, requiring carburetor replacement or rebuilding.”

Shem and others in the boating industry are seeing firsthand the effect that ethanol has on smaller motors that have different objectives and systems than that of automobile engines.

“Focusing on automobiles leaves out millions of other gas-powered engines,” said BoatU.S. Vice President of Government Affairs Margaret Podlich. “If you own a lawn mower, chainsaw, all-terrain vehicle, generator, or boat, I would be very concerned over the costs to repair or replace those items after using higher levels of ethanol gas.”

One possible solution proposed would be to keep both fuels available and label which one is which. In a letter from the EPA to Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, an ethanol advocacy group that is a major catalyst and stakeholder for the proposed increase, the agency offers an idea involving labeling.

“In light of the current testing data, the agency will be taking steps to address fuel pump labeling issues to ensure consumers utilize the proper gasoline for their vehicles and equipment (such as lawn mowers, boats, etc.) should the use of ethanol blends greater than ten percent be ultimately approved,” the letter stated.

But Podlich discounted the idea saying, “Having an additional type of higher ethanol fuel available would require new gas pumps and possibly storage tanks, and would cause significant customer confusion and mis-fueling. There is no federal requirement to label gas pumps — consumers in some states don’t know what they are buying now, so how are they expected to make the right choice if there are even more options available in the future?”

With the EPA’s commitment to increasing the country’s resources of renewable fuels, it’s very possible that the 15-percent increase could find its way into boater’s fuel tanks sooner than later. While neither the EPA nor the members of Growth Energy are happy to see the problems the ethanol increase inflicts, they have their sights set on the automotive contingent, which they feel ultimately affects more lives.

“We strongly encourage the EPA to use the next six months to consider the effects of higher ethanol blends on all gas-powered engines, and not on just new products,” said Podlich. “Americans deserve to know if all of their gas-powered engines will run reliably and safely on this proposed new fuel.”

The EPA announced last week that it expects to make a final determination in mid-2010 regarding whether to increase the allowable ethanol content in fuel.

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