Attention Fuel Shoppers

A New study confirms that better E15 warning labels are needed to protect boaters from costly mistakes at the fuel pump
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As newly elected officials descend on Washington, D.C., marine-industry lobbyists armed with a new set of data are hoping—after years of trying with the Environmental Protection Agency—to get better consumer warning labels about the dangers of ethanol-blended fuels that can wreck marine engines.

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Callie Hoyt, director of federal government relations for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “We knew that the E15 label was pretty inadequate, and we’ve been engaged with the EPA over the years, and for a long time now have been urging them to take steps to do more about this misfueling crisis.”

The new data that the NMMA has in hand is from a survey released in early December, done in conjunction with the American Motorcyclist Association and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute. The survey was created after a nationwide Harris Poll in early 2020 showed that a majority of consumers believe the small, orange E15 warning labels on gas pumps are inadequate, and that the government should do more to protect consumers.

Thus, the new NMMA survey was designed to give the government ideas about how to do more. It included prototypes for E15 warning labels that might be more effective than the label in use today. Respondents were more than four times as likely to prefer a different design. By huge majorities of 77 percent to more than 80 percent, respondents said that red is the best color for a warning label, and that visual icons are more effective than text-only warnings. “What we’re trying to show is that there are very basic steps that can be taken to inform consumers,” Hoyt says. “It doesn’t have to be costly or complex.”

David Kennedy, government affairs manager for BoatU.S., agrees that the current label is ineffective. To make clear what consumers actually need to be protected, he compares the current situation that boaters face with E15 at the gas pump to the days when cars made the transition from leaded to unleaded gasoline. “They actually changed the size of the fuel nozzles so you couldn’t put leaded fuel into a car that was made for unleaded fuel. It was a physical barrier,” he says. “Well, what about a keypad design where you have to confirm that you’re putting this into something that it’s going to damage? There are ways to get at this.”

A prototype for a new E15 warning label was designed to be more effective than the one currently in use. 

A prototype for a new E15 warning label was designed to be more effective than the one currently in use. 

One of the easiest, least-expensive ways to protect consumers, Kennedy and Hoyt say, is with a more effective warning label. The current label doesn’t even say “warning.” It instead says “attention.” It’s rarely placed in the same spot on pumps nationwide, and it often gets lost in all the other visual commotion at gas stations.

The EPA, Kennedy says, has been asking for more information about industry claims that a different solution is needed. The new NMMA survey generated that information, which can now be presented to government leaders.

The NMMA isn’t pushing for the EPA to adopt any of the prototype logos from its study; instead, the organization created the prototypes to show what could work better, if focus groups and graphic designers were included in the process. The EPA has the regulatory authority to make the label changes. Last year, marine-industry lobbyists worked to introduce legislation that would have required the EPA to design a new label. That legislation may be reintroduced in the new U.S. Congress. Both the NMMA and BoatU.S. plan to support it again, and to work directly with EPA regulators. “Hopefully we can move the needle on this to make sure that the consumer perspective will remain a priority,” Hoyt says. 

This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue.

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