Ethanol at the Pump: We’re No Smarter

When we swing by the local gas station to buy fuel for a snowblower, chainsaw or other outdoor power equipment, we know not to fill up with diesel or kerosene—no matter how much cheaper it might be.

What more than 60 percent of us still don’t know about today’s gasoline pumps, however, could shorten the running lives of our power gear by years. It comes down to one word: ethanol. And according to an annual poll commissioned by the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), the industry’s trade group, we aren’t getting any smarter.

Ethanol, a corn-based biofuel, has been mixed with gas at U.S. fuel pumps for more than 15 years—in the nation’s effort to increase the use of renewable fuels. But until recent years, ethanol in gasoline at the pump was limited to no more than 10 percent, a mixture called E10. Cars and trucks do fine with E10, but the smaller engines in outdoor power products only tolerate it.

Fast-forward to mid-2012, when the Environmental Protection Agency allowed richer mixtures of ethanol (starting with 15 percent mixtures, called E15) to be sold alongside the usual E10 from the same pumps. What’s the problem? Small engines like those in outdoor gear run correspondingly hotter the more ethanol you add. Because there’s extra ethanol in E15, the fuel draws more moisture, and water does not dissolve in gasoline. Rubber and plastic parts stiffen up, and moving parts stop moving. What’s worse, using ethanol mixtures richer than E15 void warranties, so you can’t run to the products’ manufacturers for restitution.

On fuel pumps, a small EPA sticker tells you that fueling up outdoor power equipment with E15 is illegal. But it doesn’t warn it will ruin your engine. (Prominent labeling on products as sold tells you that.) This, at least partially, explains why nobody is paying attention when fueling up.

OPEI’s online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, conducted online by The Harris Poll, annually gauges how much consumers are learning about how to protect their gear. The results aren’t pretty:

  • Among those who own outdoor power equipment, 58 percent don’t pay attention to or aren’t at all sure about what fuel they use.
  • Roughly two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) will use the cheapest grade of gas whenever possible (up from 63 percent in 2015), which is likely why just over half (52 percent) use the same fuel to fill up portable gas cans that they use to fill their vehicles. Who, after all, makes two separate fuel purchases at one pump stop?
  • Only one in five Americans say they notice mentions of ethanol content at a fuel pump, though more than four times as many (86 percent) notice price.
  • Nearly nine in 10 Americans (87 percent) agree that the federal government, which allowed the sale of higher-ethanol fuels in the first place, should do more to educate the public on correct fueling for various engine types.
  • Not everyone is misfueling unknowingly. About an eighth of respondents, 12 percent, admit to using fuel with higher than recommended ethanol levels—E15 or higher blends intended for so-called flex-fuel vehicles—for their outdoor power equipment. That’s up from 7 percent in 2015’s poll.

“To add to this concerning trend, E15 is being marketed as ‘Octane 88,’ said Kris Kiser, president and CEO of OPEI. “So we essentially have a muddled marketplace that now has to deal with even more mixed messages.” The poll bears this out: Nearly nine in 10 Americans (85 percent) are unaware that Octane 88 fuel contains more ethanol than the typical Octane 87 fuel. It makes sense, given that choices such as Octanes 89 and 91 have accompanied Octane 87 at the pump for decades.

For six years OPEI has worked to inform and urge consumers through its “Protect Your Power” program. “But we can only do so much when we’re talking about having to educate the entire country,” said Kiser. “The government, which is allowing these fuel changes, should be doing more education.”

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Ethanol in Gas Delivering Reverse of Intended Effect

ethanol image / Credit: Cornell UniversityThe ethanol mixed with the gasoline you buy has few proponents for a number of reasons. It reduces mileage in motor vehicles. It attracts water, an enemy of fuel tanks. And it corrodes rubber, plastic and some metal parts, particularly in small engines like those in outdoor power equipment.

On the other side are big players: corn growers, for whom ethanol is a cash cow, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which says it reduces greenhouse gases. But what if research proved that biofuels like ethanol actually increase greenhouse gases—even more than gasoline by itself? That’s the conclusion of a revolutionary study from the University of Michigan.

The study, headed by research professor John DeCicco and co-authors at the U-M Energy Institute (published in the August 25 issue of Climatic Change), used U.S. Department of Agriculture crop-production data to address the underlying assumption of biofuels’ value. This assumption involves two processes. The first is that the corn, soybeans and other plants used to manufacture biofuels remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to grow. Second, the biofuels made from these plants emit carbon dioxide as they’re burned for fuel. The accepted truth is that the two processes, in terms of carbon-dioxide exchange, cancel one another out. Descriptions of biofuels, as a result, use terms such as “inherently carbon-neutral.”

Steps on Carbon-Footprint Models
This is what the study challenges, and it used actual crop data rather than carbon-footprint models like those underlying the federal Renewable Fuel Standard. In fact, the researchers’ analysis shows that during the recent ramp-up of U.S. biofuel production, the increased carbon-dioxide uptake by the crops offset just 37 percent of the CO2 emissions attributed to biofuel combustion.

“When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline,” said DeCicco. “So the underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect.”

DeCicco voiced his hope that policymakers reconsider their support for biofuels. “What’s new here is that hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.”

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