Salvos Fly as Ethanol Ruling Nears

The Environmental Protection Agency has said it will rule by the end of this month on whether to allow gasoline retailers to sell a mixture that is 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent unleaded regular, a change from the current maximum of 10 percent ethanol. Coalitions have lined up — on one side, the corn farmers and ethanol producers, and on the other, the oil refiners, auto companies, manufacturers of gasoline-powered equipment and companies that use corn to raise livestock.

Some opponents are raising concerns that are not important to the E.P.A. — for example, that putting more corn into the fuel supply will raise the cost of corn for feeding chickens or pigs. Another argument is that the ethanol could burn hot enough to hurt catalytic converters or eat away the seals in various parts of the engine, resulting in higher emissions. The auto companies maintain that the only way to know is to extend the testing of cars on the higher blend for several more months.

Older cars are thought to be more vulnerable because they were not designed with ethanol in mind, whereas cars sold today are engineered for concentrations of at least 10 percent ethanol. So foes of the change are campaigning for a delay.

On Wednesday, a trade organization for the ethanol producers, the Renewable Fuels Association, will fire another salvo with the release of a study by Ricardo, a prominent British automotive engineering firm with major operations in Detroit. The firm took what it said was a representative sample of “platforms and manufacturers” and assessed their vulnerability, focusing on model years 1994 to 2000.

“Over all, moving from the use of E10 to E15 in the current U.S. light-vehicle fleet is seen as a low risk from an engineering analysis perspective,’’ the study said. “While certain risks do remain, they are manageable and exist in vehicles that are outside the normal bounds of ‘standard’ vehicles.’’

The E.P.A. has said it is considering allowing the 15 percent blend for younger cars only. But Bob Dineen, the president of the Renewable Fuels Association, said the Ricardo study “provides conclusive evidence for E.P.A. that there is no reason to limit the availability of E15 to newer vehicles only.’’

The fuel would be good for “virtually all vehicles on the road today,’’ he said.

Yet Ricardo’s study also said that damage to catalytic converters in older cars could not be ruled out and that there was not enough data to determine whether evaporative emissions — that is, fumes from unburned fuel, which have smog ingredients — would increase.

Charles T. Drevna, the president of the National Petroleum and Refiners Association, said the issue went beyond cars. “Gasoline goes into a lot of other engines rather than just the automobile,’’ he said. “If you’re on a boat in they middle of the lake or the ocean or you’re in a snowmobile and get stuck in the middle of the wilderness, it’s a potential safety problem.’’

The power equipment manufacturers also warn that hand-held power tools like chain saws or leaf blowers could malfunction or burn.

Blends with higher ethanol content may be inevitable, he said, but “let’s be prudent and judicious and take people’s health and safety into concern prior to introduction on a massive scale.’’

Not be outdone, the American Petroleum Institute, the trade association for the oil and gas industry, released a study last month that said that if the E.P.A. changed the 10 percent ethanol rule, it would have to change a lot of other rules, too, before the fuel could be sold. That includes the allowable formulas for reformulated gasoline, which is required in smog-prone areas; the rules governing gasoline detergent additives; and the federal specifications for commercial fuels. The rules on pipelines, storage tanks and retail dispensing facilities would also have to change, the group said.

The Renewable Fuels Association counters that the oil industry simply wants to maintain the status quo.

By MATTHEW L. WALD/NYT
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