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Too Much Corn in Our Cars Diet

Carmakers fight hike in ethanol at pump

They want research on engine effects before boosting ratio in fuel

Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A push by corn-producing states and alternative fuel proponents to increase federal rules boosting the amount of ethanol mixed into gasoline is being fought by automakers because it would be costly and could damage engines.

By Dec. 1, the Environmental Protection Agency must decide whether to approve a request to increase the amount of ethanol that can be mixed with most gasoline sold at pumps to as much as 15 percent.

Most pumps already sell E10, which is 10 percent ethanol.

Automakers want the agency to further study the effects of the proposed increase before allowing it to happen.

Increased ethanol blends could corrode engines that aren’t specifically built for E15, according to automakers.

Four farm state senators led by Ben Nelson, D-Neb., introduced a measure that would require the EPA to grant the request.

More than 13,000 people and groups have written the EPA since the request was filed in March.

Congress has required that the nation use 11 billion gallons of ethanol next year and 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Mike Stanton, CEO of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing major foreign automakers, noted the United States would not be able to consume even half of the ethanol required by Congress by 2022 by simply requiring all pumps to be E10.

“We’re on a collision course here,” he said.

And there are a number of problems with an immediate boost in the ethanol blend.

Automakers warn the higher ethanol blend could boost greenhouse gas emissions, damage engines or disable vehicles.

In Baltimore, nearly a third of the city’s patrol cars stopped running earlier this month because a station had boosted the amount of ethanol in the fuel. It isn’t clear how much ethanol was in the mix.

Stanton, and Dave McCurdy of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes Detroit’s Big Three, Toyota and seven other automakers, wrote a letter Friday to Congress urging more research before approving ethanol blends like E12 or E15.

That idea “is premature, and since EPA has never allowed conventional vehicles to use higher ethanol blends, the research on their potential impacts on vehicles not designed, tested or warranted for their use is incomplete,” the letter said.

The adoption of E15 could also affect users of other gasoline engines.

The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, based in Haslett, warned in comments to the EPA that the increase could do “irreparable harm” to the nation’s more than 1.8 million registered snowmobiles and damage the economy of Michigan and other northern U.S. states that rely on snowmobiling for tourism.

Associations representing the nation’s 80 million boaters have also opposed the request, saying it could damage marine engines.

In 2007, Congress required the nation to drastically boost the amount of ethanol it uses to 11.1 billion gallons this year, nearly 60 percent more than what the United States used in 2007, and more than 2 billion gallons over 2008. Nearly all of the U.S. ethanol is now corn-based, but research and investment into the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol could lead to production from renewable sources like grass or wood chips. No significant quantities of cellulosic ethanol have been produced.

Ethanol producers point to some studies that suggest higher blends wouldn’t harm most engines. The EPA first approved the use of ethanol blends of up to 10 percent in 1978.

Congress asked to fund tests

Automakers have joined with the oil, ethanol, small engine, marine, outdoor power equipment and motorcycle industries to create a task force, along with the Energy Department and EPA, to assess different blends.

Dubbed the “midlevel ethanol blends research coordination council,” the group says Congress needs to allocate money to fund testing.

The automakers wrote Congress on Friday asking it to set aside $17 million “to complete the necessary vehicle testing.”

Congress is also considering whether to force automakers to build more cars that run on nearly all ethanol.

The auto industry has produced 7 million vehicles that can run on E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol, or on regular gasoline. A bill in Congress sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., would require automakers to produce 50 percent of their fleet as E85-compatible by 2012 and 80 percent by 2015. A House version is sponsored by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

In March 2006, Detroit’s Big Three agreed to build 50 percent of their vehicles as flex-fuel vehicles by 2012 under certain conditions. Automakers get credits toward meeting fuel efficiency regulations for building the vehicles.

Under EPA’s recently proposed tailpipe emissions limits, it would continue the flex-fuel vehicle credit through the 2015 model year. After that, automakers would get the credit only if they could show that the fuel was being used.

The Union of Concerned Scientists urged EPA to “reject the E15 petition as a premature, unnecessarily piecemeal approach.”

Low gas prices hurt ethanol

Many ethanol producers are struggling because motorists consider gasoline prices around $2.50 a gallon affordable, and are not clamoring for a cheaper fuel. E85 is averaging about $2.01 a gallon, but it’s about 25 percent less energy intensive, so its price per mile cost is currently virtually identical to gasoline.

In May, the Obama administration created a task force to help the ethanol industry.

The $787 billion federal stimulus package sets aside $786.5 million to accelerate biofuels research and boost commercialization by providing additional funding for commercial biorefineries.

The new funds include $480 million for pilot- and demonstration-scale biorefineries, $176.5 million for commercial-scale biorefinery projects and $130 million for research.

Proponents of ethanol say the industry provides American jobs — especially in rural areas — lessens the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and provides a steady income for farmers. Michigan has five ethanol refineries.

Iowa and South Dakota’s agriculture secretaries wrote the EPA urging the increase.

“In 2007 alone, the ethanol industry created more than 200,000 American jobs that cannot be exported or outsourced, while contributing $47.6 billion to our (gross domestic product) and generating $4.6 billion in tax revenues,” wrote South Dakota’s Bill Even and Iowa’s Bill Northey.

But using large amounts of the nation’s corn boosts food and feed prices, critics say.

Last year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry unsuccessfully sought to water down the mandate, citing high feed prices.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said in opposing the 15 percent blend that it “would require an immediate 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol, and would require approximately 1.6 billion bushels of corn — which is nearly equivalent to the amount of corn used by the cattle industry in an entire year.”

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