Back in early December, I wrote an article about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducting a study centered around the level of ethanol in gasoline rising from the current 10 percent limit (E10) to 15 percent (E15).

Because the additive burns cleaner, is highly biodegradable and is thought to reduce carbon monoxide emissions, the EPA is keen to introducing a higher percentage into the fuel supply, but the proposed increase was not completely well received. While it was accepted that the higher concentration was suitable for newer cars, many worried that the additional ethanol amount wouldn’t fair well in older model vehicles, farm equipment and boat motors.

The EPA is quick to cite the environmental benefits of the additive, but the speculation was and is that higher levels of the substance puts particular components at greater risk of deterioration and failure. The rap on ethanol is that it doesn’t play nice with certain metals and materials, but a recent report is helping the EPA get over the legislative hump.

“Older vehicles represent a significant yet previously comparatively under-researched element of the U.S. national vehicle fleet,” said Kent Niederhofer, president of Ricardo, the organization researching E15’s effect on older automobiles. “The analysis concluded that the adoption and use of E15 would not adversely affect fuel system components in properly engineered vehicles, nor would it cause them to perform in a sub-optimal manner, when compared to the use of E10.”

Ricardo’s report was considered good news for the EPA but bad news for recreational boating advocates and professionals who feel that E15 is not yet fully researched. Clearly, the market made up of farmers and boaters is much smaller than people who drive 10-year-old cars, so groups like BoatUS are pleading for more time to look more thoroughly at the data.

“Last year, a record number of recreational boaters asked the EPA to test marine engines before allowing up to E15 ethanol in gasoline,” said BoatUS Vice President of Government Affairs Margaret Podlich. “While this testing has not been completed, we believe the EPA is getting ready to announce their decision on increased ethanol in the next couple of weeks.

“We expect the agency will allow E15 for some engines and not others. In addition to the lack of scientific testing data, we suspect this will create different fuels with different prices, availability and add consumer confusion.

“Many boaters, having suffered through the last ethanol transition to E10, agree that we should learn from recent history and first completely understand what the new fuel will do before approving its use in boats,” added Podlich. “It may turn out to be harmless, but what if it’s not? What happens if safety is affected or boaters are forced to pay for expensive repairs? Remember that most boat engine warranties are void when using ethanol beyond the 10 percent level.”

Locally, Greg Schem, owner of The Boat Yard in Marina del Rey, says he has already seen the effects of ethanol on some boats. In the December article, Schem commented on the problems he’s seen E15 create:

“At The Boat Yard we see it firsthand — 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.”

The EPA has indicated it would make a decision by the end of September on whether to approve E15 in gasoline, but there will be resistance. According to Followthescience.org, 39 environmental, food, motor vehicle, energy, power equipment and recreational industry groups have requested House and Senate hearings on the matter. The group stated:

“Ethanol burns hotter than gasoline and corrodes soft metals, plastics and rubber. The groups believe more testing is needed to determine how much ethanol is too much for different types of existing engines to use safely without risking engine damage and failure that could leave vehicles stranded and endanger motorists and users of gasoline-powered equipment.”

For boaters, this change may translate more prevalently to safety issues.

“A broken-down car on the side of the road is one thing; a boat stranded at sea is an entirely different matter,” said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association in an editorial piece for TheHill.com/. “We also know that higher-level ethanol blends make boat engines run at a higher temperature, increasing emissions of smog-forming pollutants. There are serious consumer safety, warranty, product liability and air quality concerns that EPA and policymakers have not fully thought through, in their haste, to support the ethanol industry.”

Organizations like BoatUS and Followthescience.org are urging boaters to look at the information regarding E15 and decide for themselves if the research has been thorough enough to implement this change.

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