Will Politics Trump Science in Ethanol Debate?

The comment period on the proposed shift from 10% to 15% Ethanol in motor fuel generated full-scale opposition from the boating public, but there are powerful lobbies involved as the debate moves towards the U.S. Congress.

23rd July 2009.
By Charles Plueddeman

On July 20 the marine industry made a final pitch to the EPA, presenting a 40-page document outlining in detail its opposition to a petition requesting a waiver to allow the sale of motor fuel blended with up to 15 percent ethanol. We reported on the details of this issue in May, and Boats.com readers were among the 31,000 members of the boating community that logged comments to the EPA through a link created by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), a trade organization representing the marine industry. The comment period, which was extended from its original May 21 deadline, also closed on July 20.

The 40-page comment submitted by the NMMA offers a broad summary of the legal and technical logic behind the NMMA opposition to the waiver petition, which was made by Growth Energy, a pro-ethanol lobby.

The ethanol content of motor fuel, currently capped at 10 percent, could go up to 15 percent if the EPA grants a waiver requested by a pro-ethanol trade group. The marine industry fears high ethanol blends would have a disastrous effect on boat engines and fuel systems.

The ethanol content of motor fuel, currently capped at 10 percent, could go up to 15 percent if the EPA grants a waiver requested by a pro-ethanol trade group. The marine industry fears high ethanol blends would have a disastrous effect on boat engines and fuel systems.

The comment document includes some dramatic photos of phase-separate fuel, a delaminated fiberglass fuel tank, engine damage and a dried-out fuel pump diaphragm, each an example of the damage the NMMA says was caused by the current 10-percent ethanol-blend fuel. According to the NMMA, there are 18 million boats currently in operation in the U.S., and none of them has been designed, certified or warranteed to run on fuel containing more than 10 percent ethanol (so-called E-10 fuel). If the EPA grants the waiver, the ethanol industry benefits because it will be able blend 50 percent more ethanol with motor fuel. High corn prices (corn is the raw material for most ethanol produced in the United States) and declining consumption of gasoline has the ethanol industry in a financial bind, just as the venture capital that has funded the rapid expansion of the corn ethanol industry has dried up with the collapse of the stock market.

The EPA has until December 1, 2009 to grant or deny the waiver petition made by Growth Energy, and its decision could come at any time before that date. The NMMA was joined by a broad coalition of business organizations and consumer groups that argued against the waiver, ranging from environmental organizations like the Sierra Club to the auto and oil industries.

Matt Dunn, the Washington, D.C.-based NMMA Legislative Director, would not speculate on the how the EPA may rule on the waiver request.

“This is a very hot issue,” said Dunn. “We worked with a range of industries and I think made a very compelling case, based on the law and science, that the EPA should deny this petition at this time. We think that Growth Energy bears the burden of proof that E-15 fuel will not damage products or contribute to increase exhaust emissions.”

Of course, the waiver request has as much to do with politics as it does with the law or science, and Dunn is very concerned that the ethanol lobby with try to influence legislators from farm states to intervene on behalf of Growth Energy and other ethanol producers.

“There is a big risk that, as climate-change legislation and a new farm bill move through Congress, legislation allowing E-15 will be attached by farm-state representatives that would take this out of the hands of the regulators at the EPA,” said Dunn.

In the meantime, boat owners can only wait and see how this contentious issue plays out in Washington.

Editor’s Note: Charles Plueddeman, our Outboard and Trailer Expert, is a former editor at Boating Magazine and contributor to many national publications since 1986.


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Charles Plueddeman

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Charles Plueddeman is Boats.com's outboard, trailer, and PWC expert. He is a former editor at Boating Magazine and contributor to many national publications since 1986.

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