March 6, 2009, 12:00 pm
A Slugfest Over Higher Ethanol Blends
By Kate Galbraith
Wesley Clark, the retired general and erstwhile presidential candidate, has thrown his weight behind an ethanol industry group lobbying for higher ethanol blends in gasoline. Not everyone is happy about it.
The struggling ethanol industry is flexing its political clout to try to change government regulations on how much ethanol can be blended into gasoline.
Today retired General Wesley Clark, a onetime presidential candidate who now is the co-chairman of an ethanol industry group, asked the Environmental Protection Agency to raise the limit on how much ethanol can be blended into gasoline. The limit is 10 percent; General Clark and his group, Growth Energy, want the amount raised as high as 15 percent.
The American Coalition for Ethanol and other industry groups also submitted petitions today.
Many environmentalists, however, don't like corn ethanol.
"This is a likely prescription for more pollution –- and more engine damage," wrote Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch on his blog today.
Indeed, many opponents of corn ethanol argue that it creates plenty of greenhouse gas emissions, partly because of the fertilizer needed, and partly because in their view, growing corn as an energy feedstock displaces food crops, and forces an outward expansion of agriculture into precious forest land abroad.
The ethanol industry says the jury is still out on claims about "indirect land use," which are the subject of a long-running debate.
I have been watching the "blend wall" topic for a while, and last November I asked Gregory Shaver, an assistant professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University, for his view on E15.
"From an engine/vehicle performance point of view there are no 'show stoppers' in going from 10 to 15 percent in a modern vehicle," Mr. Shaver wrote in an e-mail message. "Ethanol is less energy dense than gasoline, so I would expect a very modest reduction in the miles per gallon."
Plenty of drivers already complain that the 10 percent ethanol blend reduces their mileage, and boaters and other users of small engines worry about complications that result from ethanol's ability to attract water when the fuel is stored.
Kris Kiser, the executive vice president at the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, warned today of "serious concerns" about E15.
"We need to acknowledge that current equipment — including boats, chainsaws, lawn mowers, snow mobiles, motorcycles, generators and other small engine equipment — may be permanently damaged and poses a safety risk if E15 fuel is used," Mr. Kiser said in a statement. "Current equipment is neither designed, built or warrantied for mid- level blends."
Meanwhile, in California, a fight is brewing over the state's proposed "low-carbon fuel standard." California's Air Resources Board issued a proposal about the standards on Thursday, and some ethanol makers were enraged. They fear that concerns about the "lifecycle emissions" from corn ethanol — that indirect land use question, again — will disadvantage corn ethanol.
Tom Koehler, spokesman for Pacific Ethanol, told The Los Angeles Times that the Air Resources Board's proposal was "a perversion of science and a prescription for disaster."
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