Ethanol-Blended Fuel Is Confusing Consumers, AAA Says

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Motorist Confusion Over Ethanol Seen Causing Engine Damage
Ethanol, fermented from grain such as corn in a process similar to making moonshine, must be blended into gasoline under the Renewable Fuels Standard as a way to cut the amounts of crude oil used to make motor fuel. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

An ethanol-blended gasoline approved for use in U.S. vehicles manufactured since model year 2001 may confuse consumers and lead to damaged car engines, the American Automobile Association said.

A survey by the biggest U.S. driving organization showed that the standard for the E15 gasoline blend, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in June, is unknown to 95 percent of consumers contacted by telephone. Less than a fifth of cars on the road have been approved by manufacturers to use the fuel, and engine damage may not be covered under warranties, AAA said.

“It is clear that millions of Americans are unfamiliar with E15, which means there is a strong possibility that many motorists may improperly fill up using this gasoline and damage their vehicle,” AAA President Robert Darbelnet said today in a statement. “Bringing E15 to the market without adequate safeguards does not responsibly meet the needs of consumers.”

Ethanol, fermented from grain such as corn in a process similar to making moonshine, must be blended into gasoline under the Renewable Fuels Standard as a way to cut the amounts of crude oil used to make motor fuel. It’s typically sold at filling stations in a formula known as E10, with 10 percent ethanol mixed with 90 percent gasoline. The U.S. doesn’t specify how much ethanol is blended into gasoline.

Nine Stations

Nine U.S. gas stations sell E15 fuel, according to Growth Energy, a Washington-based group that represents ethanol producers. Sales of E15 began in July. Seven of the nine outlets are in Kansas, with one each in Iowa and Nebraska.

The E15 blend, which uses 15 percent ethanol, may lead to accelerated engine wear and failure, fuel-system damage and false “check engine” lights when used for sustained periods in vehicles not cleared for use, AAA said in its statement, which referenced previous research.

Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said the study supports his call to halt the sale of the ethanol blend. Sensenbrenner has offered legislation, approved by a committee, that would require the EPA to work with the National Academies of Sciences on a study of E15.

“Concerns about E15 are not diminishing, they are increasing,” Sensenbrenner said today in a statement.

E15 Label

Stations aren’t required to sell the fuel. The EPA and the Federal Trade Commission require E15 sellers to post a “prominent orange and black label” to let consumers know a pump contains E15, Julia Valentine, an EPA spokeswoman, said.

“EPA shares AAA’s concern over consumer awareness of the use of E15,” she said.

Before the EPA cleared E15, researchers at the Energy Department tested it thoroughly and found it safe for use, and Nascar race drivers use the blend, which boosts performance, said Michael Frohlich, a spokesman for Growth Energy.

The AAA “hasn’t shown any evidence” that ethanol harms engines, he said. The AAA study “is like me going out to the bar and asking 15 people there if they like beer.”

A dozen automakers including Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. in early July, wrote a letter to Sensenbrenner, criticizing the EPA proposal. Five manufacturers have said their warranties won’t cover engine damage from using E15. Seven others said it may void warranty coverage.

Rushing Product

“We all agree that renewable fuels are an important part of our national energy security, but it is not in the longer term interest of consumers, the government, and all parties involved to discover after-the-fact that equipment or performance problems are occurring because a new fuel was rushed into the national marketplace,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include Chrysler, Ford and Toyota.

About 12 million of more than 240 million vehicles on U.S. roads have been cleared for expanded ethanol use, including all flex-fuel car models, General Motors Co. vehicles made since model year 2012 and Ford vehicles made in the 2013 model year. Heavy-duty vehicles, boats, motorcycles, power equipment, lawn mowers and off-road vehicles are prohibited from using E15.

The AAA report tracks similar research by automakers and the oil industry, which have opposed the mandate: E15 may cause significant mechanical problems in millions of cars on the road, according to a report by the industry-backed Coordinating Research Council earlier this year.

“The sale and use of E15 should be suspended until additional gas pump labeling and consumer education efforts are implemented to mitigate problems for motorists and their vehicles,” said Darbelnet.

The survey of consumer knowledge was conducted by telephone among 1,012 adults in private households, according to the statement. AAA didn’t give a margin of error.

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