The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has unilaterally adopted regulations to enable a 50% increase in the ethanol content of America’s gasoline.

The Clean Air Act’s Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) requires annual increases of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline. This requirement was predicated upon ever increasing domestic use of transportation fuels. However, since the RFS was enacted into law in 2007, the amount of conventional fuel used in the U.S. has actually decreased. Thus, the amount of renewable fuel mandated by the RFS now exceeds the 10% ethanol blend threshold “blendwall.” This is the currently allowable blend, and the proportion which can be safely used in both on-and off-road engines.

In response to hitting this “blendwall,” USEPA has now theoretically cleared the way for higher ethanol blends in gasoline, such as 15%. Yet, in taking this step, USEPA has consistently demonstrated a willingness to rely on less than comprehensive testing of an engine’s ability to operate using these higher ethanol blends. USEPA continues to disregard other, still-pending evaluations, perhaps, because the results may prove inconvenient or inconclusive at best.  In so doing, USEPA has formally approved the tortured construct that “permits” the use of gasoline containing 15% ethanol (E15) in Model Year 2001 and newer vehicles, but not for prior Model Years, or for any other non-road engines (e.g., marine, lawnmowers, motorcycles, snowmobiles, etc.).

In response to the USEPA’s action, carmakers and non-road engine manufacturers have reiterated their concern that the operation of their engines and other vehicle components are not covered by warranties for problems caused by gasoline containing E15 or higher ethanol blends. While the auto industry is making efforts to design engines which may accommodate higher ethanol blends in the future, non-road engine manufacturers are not able to replicate those changes due to technological limitations of their engines. What this creates is the prospect for significant repair and consumer replacement costs as well as consumer confusion.

In the face of consumer confusion, USEPA, in February 2012, issued a regulation affixing “warning labels” to gasoline pumps apprising consumers of its new bifurcated E15 approval regimen for auto engines. Gasoline retailers, marketers, and refiners, as well as vehicle and engine manufacturers, caution that USEPA’s warning label ‘Band-Aid’ is insufficient to remedy consumer confusion. Unintentional consumer misfueling seems likely to occur.  This risks potentially significant damage to cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, and virtually all outdoor power equipment. This misfueling, in turn, creates a liability problem for engine manufacturers, those who market fuel (retailers), and those who manufacture fuel (refiners) – none of whom had anything to do with the rush to put higher ethanol content fuels into the market prematurely. In fact, federal legislation to provide an exemption to liability for all parties is likely to be re-introduced in this session of Congress.

Ethanol and other renewable fuels may have an important role to play in America’s future mix of motor fuels, but its introduction must be done safely, rationally, and within the parameters of normal market forces. Ethanol’s introduction must not come at the expense of consumer health, safety, or economics (i.e., replacing damaged engines). Virtually all car warranties disallow use of E15 gasoline; despite this, USEPA is blithely ignoring the facts as well as the resulting consumer confusion that seems certain to arise.

The best way to resolve this situation is to allow for the completion of additional comprehensive testing and evaluation on engines using higher ethanol blends in gasoline. USEPA’s current course is forcing American drivers of cars, trucks, recreation, and maintenance equipment to risk voiding their warranties. Legislation was introduced in the last Congress requiring USEPA to further assess the impacts of a 15% ethanol blend in gasoline.  The legislation would compel USEPA to work with the National Academy of Sciences to comprehensively assess scientific research on E15 before approving its introduction into the marketplace.  To underscore the gravity of USEPA’s actions, separate bipartisan legislation was also introduced in the Senate and House to address the question of liability in the event that USEPA’s “grand experiment” on American consumers does not work.