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Stay tuned — E15 is not going away yet

The EPA will await the results of further testing before deciding on higher levels of ethanol in gas

Good news for powerboat owners: The marine industry has scored twice in its fight to protect engines and fuel systems from ethanol-blended gasoline’s damaging effects.
The Environmental Protection Agency delayed its Dec. 1 decision on whether to approve the sale of higher-ethanol fuels — up to 15 percent — until more testing is completed. A ruling is expected in June.

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“I would describe this as a moderate victory for the folks who have been raising concerns about E15, including us,” says Mat Dunn, legislative director for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “The fact that they decided to delay a decision and specifically pointed out that they needed more testing before they could make a call on this validates what we’ve been saying all along. But I would caution that we still have a lot of work to do … to make the case that this fuel should not be introduced into the marketplace.”
The government set a 10 percent limit on ethanol about three decades ago. Growth Energy, a group representing the nation’s ethanol producers, petitioned the agency March 6, 2009, for a waiver to allow ethanol blends of up to 15 percent, or E15. The NMMA argues that the E15 waiver request should be denied until independent and comprehensive scientific testing is completed on a full range of marine engines and other products. E10 has led to the disintegration of fiberglass fuel tanks, the gumming up of fuel lines, and piston and valve failure, among other problems.
Another positive sign was a Nov. 2 resolution by the National Boating Safety Advisory Council contending that “blended fuel containing ethanol has the potential to create a significant boating safety risk.” The council consists of 21 members appointed by the Secretary of Homeland Security.
“Our mission is to advise the Coast Guard on recreational boating safety issues,” says council chairman James P. Muldoon. “If a fuel line breaks, that creates a certain amount of safety problems, of course,” says Muldoon. “It could lead to … a fire or an explosion. Or [boaters] could get stuck out on the water.”
The council resolution calls on the Coast Guard to:
• continue to oppose the introduction for general sale of any midlevel ethanol fuel unless it is determined with independent, verifiable scientific testing that such a fuel is compatible with marine engines and fuel systems
• stay engaged in all efforts that attempt to introduce midlevel (greater than 10 percent) ethanol fuel into the market by providing technical assistance and advice, and advocating for additional testing
• to the extent possible, continue to investigate the potential relationship between marine engine failures and ethanol-blended gasoline
The Coast Guard will share the requests in the council’s resolution with the EPA, says Jeffrey N. Hoedt, chief of the boating safety division in the Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety. “We work with the EPA on a regular basis in trying to conduct research on proposals,” says Hoedt. “We look at it from the safety aspect, and we work with them on that. Our message is that our advisory council, representing a large part of the recreational boating community, has a [safety] concern, and the EPA can consider that concern.”

Marina Jack in Sarasota, Fla., wants boaters to know it sells ethanol-free gas.

While pleased with the delay on the E15 decision, the industry is concerned that the EPA’s focus appears to be on the automotive side, the newer automotive side, says Dunn. “We have strong reservations and concerns about a so-called partial waiver for cars for E15,” says Dunn, citing an EPA letter to Growth Energy announcing the delay. “We don’t think that is going to work and [is] very problematic for boaters.”

As the EPA reviews the waiver request, it is looking at all data submitted for both on-road and non-road sources, according to EPA senior press officer Catherine C. Milbourn.
Both Mercury Marine and Volvo Penta are already geared up for testing on their engines. “I’ve got the first engine all ready,” says Rich Kolb, Volvo Penta manager of emissions and regulations. That engine is a 3-liter carbureted sterndrive (about 140 hp).
“We chose this because it’s a very popular model in the marketplace,” he says. “The marine industry has the oldest legacy fleet in existence. If you buy a weed whacker and it breaks, you throw it away and get a new one. But if you buy an $18,000 to $20,000 boat and have problems, you don’t scrap it.”
Mercury Marine plans to test three different outboards — a high-horsepower 4-stroke (around 200 hp), a midrange 2-stroke (around 70 hp), and a kicker 4-stroke (4 to 9 hp), according to Mark Riechers, Mercury director of regulatory development. Like Kolb, Riechers stresses the importance of testing engines with older technology. “Forget E10 and E15 — we have engines out there calibrated on leaded gasoline,” says Riechers.
Mercury and Volvo Penta are working with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to obtain E15 for testing, which should begin within two to three months, say Riechers and Kolb.
“Testing should be completed 90 to 100 days after the fuel gets here,” says Kolb. The engines will be tested for emissions as well as durability, he says. “We wanted to do some very comprehensive testing with engines on boats and multiple engines, but the DOE said it wasn’t possible from a financial standpoint.”
It’s a good sign that the DOE is working with these two engine manufacturers, says Dunn. Still, the industry must keep making its voice heard. “We feel that more testing is necessary even after these initial tests,” says Dunn.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.