Follow the Money

The 'debate' over E15 is showing up in my Inbox with greater frequency these days.

In case you haven't heard, E15 is 85 percent gasoline and 15 percent ethanol. Current EPA rules require refineries to produce E10 as road fuel, and a few years ago the Agency began the rule-making process to change that requirement to E15. (The actual ethanol blend at the pump is determined locally by state government, and the pump must be labled.)

Opposition to this rule comes from a group called the Coordinating Research Council (CRC), which includes, among others, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and eight of the world's largest auto manufacturers.

The EPA is tasked by Congress with protecting air quality, while the CRC can be seen as an industry group dedicated to protecting fuel quality. The EPA says we need E15 to protect air quality and it will not harm engines made since 2007. CRC says E15 may harm fuel systems and all engines, degrade performance and increase emissions. The EPA says CRC testing is designed to support their opposition to the rule, while CRC says the EPA is trying to force approval of E15 before testing is complete.

Here's how I see it: We live in a nation of Political Action Committees (PACs) and partisan media, so it's no surprise this debate has become louder in an election year. The ethanol industry is subsidized by the federal government, and politicians of every stripe stand accused of pandering to voters in corn-producing states.

I'm not saying the EPA is a political puppet, but the political pressure can't be denied. The CRC and those they represent are trying to avoid yet another expensive technological adjustment to satisfy government regulations, and as anyone reading this magazine knows, fuel quality has a measurable effect on performance, mileage, emissions and reliability.

My own personal stake in this? I own five fuel systems that would be damaged by too much alcohol in the fuel. How much is too much? I don't know who to trust for the answer, but I worry that I'll find out the hard way.