Is too much ethanol in U.S. gasoline too much of a good thing?
This isn't an idle question, because the federal government, under successive administrations, has been keenly interested in the gasoline Americans burn, not just in their cars but also in their boats, lawn mowers, chainsaws and off-road vehicles.
When a series of challenges have worked their way through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, right in the middle of the 2012 elections, the composition of gasoline is likely to change.
If the Environmental Protection Agency has its way, the ethanol content of gasoline will rise from 10 percent to 15 percent. This may not sound like much, but it's enough to wreak havoc on old engines in cars and on many marine and other engines, according to opponents.
The arguments are:
Ethanol is good because it reduces most tailpipe emissions, is made from U.S. corn and provides a steady and growing market for the nation's farmers.
Ethanol is bad in quantity because it is a solvent that attacks various rubber components in engines and fiberglass in boat fuel tanks and can lead to catastrophic failures and fires. The U.S. Coast Guard has drawn attention to what it sees as potential loss of life with the failure of marine engines.
The EPA, charged by Congress with managing the ethanol in gasoline, says that all of these considerations can be met.
The agency has approved the use of E15 fuel (15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline) in newer vehicles, in addition to E10 (10 percent ethanol). It doesn't propose taking E10 off the market, but merely adding E15 as an option at the gas pump.
The crux of the appeals court action is whether the EPA meets its obligations if the new fuel is not of a standard suitable for all engines.
Opponents who are led by the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, and who include an array of groups from automobile makers to food processors, say that to offer both fuels would require a reconfiguration of gasoline stations, that the stations aren't equipped to handle the two similar products and that in reality E15 will drive out E10. They also say that E15 will have devastating effects in older automobile engines, marine engines and all other engines, including your emergency electric generator.
Nonetheless, the EPA is hanging tough. It has to. Congress has put it between a rock and a hard place. Congress has mandated that ethanol use grow: The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 stipulates that renewable-fuel production and use must reach 36 billion gallons by 2022.
Until something else comes along, this means ethanol.
Blending in additives to gasoline goes back to the days when lead was added to reduce knocking and improve combustion. With the removal of lead, a compound called MBTE got in the mix; but this was found to enter groundwater from leaks. Meanwhile, the EPA wanted an oxygen-rich fuel to ensure fuller combustion and fewer nasties coming from the exhaust.
Ethanol, which has had proponents since the early 1970s, was favored by the farm lobby and by those who thought it would reduce our dependence on imported oil, though it uses nearly as much oil to produce as it replaces.
Democratic and Republican administrations nodded at ethanol, and President George W. Bush was passionate about it. In theory, Congress could reduce the pressure to use more ethanol. But in reality, Congress won't undo what it has done.
Government has two tools to shift the market: mandates and subsidies.
Ethanol has both tools working for it, unless the courts rule against the EPA on the technical issue of whether the new fuel will operate in all engines and meet the statute requirement for consistency.
E10 helps combustion and octane-rating and reduces emissions as it is. E15 may just be too much of a good thing.
By. Llewellyn King
Llewellyn King, executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org