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E15 waiver could cause consumer confusion

The Environmental Protection Agency's expected partial waiver to allow E15 for newer road vehicles will likely lead to boat owners mistakenly filling their tanks with a fuel that could damage their engines, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The waiver, which the EPA expects to grant in September, would create confusion among owners of boats and other non-road vehicles and lead to "misfueling," NMMA legislative director Mat Dunn said.

"This waiver will generate an enormous amount of consumer confusion," Dunn told Soundings Trade Only, Soundings' sister magazine. "A partial waiver is a guarantee that misfueling of boat and other non-road engines will occur and it will push E15 into many markets, which means trouble."

The action will lead to the proliferation of E15 around the country - starting in states where ethanol is readily available, such as Minnesota and Iowa - and will make it difficult for boat owners to find E10, Dunn said.

Dunn said he is hopeful that a strong letter against the waiver sent to the EPA from the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce "will lead to a turn in the opposite direction and slow down EPA's decision on the waiver."

The EPA must review all congressional inquiries, including this one, according to EPA senior press officer Catherine C. Milbourn. She declined to comment about whether the letter would be reviewed before a decision on the partial waiver is handed down.

The federal government set a 10 percent limit on ethanol about three decades ago. Growth Energy, a group representing the nation's ethanol producers, petitioned the EPA early last year for a waiver to allow ethanol blends of up to 15 percent.

The NMMA argues that the EPA should deny the E15 waiver request until independent and comprehensive scientific testing is completed on a full range of marine engines and other products. E10 has led to such problems as the disintegration of fiberglass fuel tanks, the gumming up of fuel lines, and piston and valve failure.

By the end of September, Department of Energy testing on newer vehicles (covering the 2007 and earlier motor vehicle fleet) will be completed, and EPA plans to take action on the waiver request regarding the use of E15 in those vehicles, according to the EPA's latest E15 update posted on its website. If those test results support E15, EPA also will propose a labeling rule on fuel-dispensing equipment at that time, according to the website.

The letter - signed by the committee chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) - asks the EPA how it plans to ensure that "increasing the permissible level of ethanol in gasoline is accomplished in a way that does not present any potential harm to ... consumers' investments in cars, trucks and other engines and equipment." It asks the EPA to "protect the investments the American people have made in their cars, trucks, boats."

The letter, dated July 29, also raises the following issues:

•If the EPA does indeed grant the partial waiver it should have a "well-thought-out and well-executed plan for avoiding misfueling. Without appropriate safeguards, a partial approval could pose major problems for consumers with vehicles or engines that are not compatible with E15."

•The authors liken the misfueling scenario of E15 to the switch from leaded to unleaded gasoline. "Based on the experience with the transition from leaded to unleaded gasoline, a significant amount of accidental or intentional misfueling would be likely," the letter states. "If such misfueling led to operability or durability problems, or increased repair costs, a significant number of consumers could be adversely affected."

•The committee members argue that the Clean Air Act prevents the sale of E15 unless the EPA determines that the fuel would be compatible with "existing cars and trucks, and with non-road equipment (such as boats, lawn mowers, chain saws, etc.)."

•The letter is accompanied by a list of 16 questions covering such topics as whether the EPA can assure consumers that E15 will not adversely affect boat engines and whether warranties would be voided if consumers mistakenly use E15 in engines not designed for this fuel.

"We hope EPA gets the message," Dunn said, pointing out that the letter has bipartisan support.

The letter was also signed by Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) ranking member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

While the marine industry and supporters fight the partial waiver, engine manufacturers Mercury Marine and Volvo Penta are weeks, maybe days, from beginning testing of marine engines with E15.

"They finally got the contract to us," said Mark Riechers, Mercury Marine director of regulatory development. "The government doesn't always move so fast. We only got the contract finalized a couple weeks ago. We've ordered the engines, and we've ordered the fuel. We're going to be testing for emissions and durability."

Mercury will test a 9.9-hp outboard, a 300-hp 4-stroke Verado, and a 200- or 225-hp 2-stroke EFI. "There are thousands and thousands of them out there," Riechers said of the 200- and 225-hp EFI outboards. The engines will be tested for 300 hours at wide-open throttle.
Volvo Penta will test a 4.3 GL (190 hp) carbureted sterndrive engine, said Rich Kolb, Volvo Penta manager of emissions and regulations. "It's a pretty common engine in a lot of your entry-level boats," he said.

The two engine manufacturers will be reporting the results to the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Click here for the full text of the letter.