The debate over ethanol has taken another turn, with both sides launching campaigns focused on higher blends of the fuel additive that are coming to the marketplace.
In October, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, whose membership includes Briggs & Stratton Co., Ariens Co. and Kohler Co., began a consumer education program called “Look Before You Pump,” aimed at preventing people from using the new 15 percent ethanol blend of gasoline in small engines.
Meanwhile, a Wisconsin grain farmer donated $50,000 to start a campaign aimed at promoting corn-based ethanol as a way to reduce fuel prices, lower the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and improve air quality.
Advocates say raising the amount of ethanol in gasoline from the current 10 percent blend to 15 percent and higher amounts is gaining traction in the marketplace.
“Ethanol is about 60 cents per gallon cheaper than gasoline, so those marketers with the ability to blend higher levels of it in their fuel are taking a strong look at it,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, based in Washington, D.C.
Critics say the higher blends could cause engine failures and void warranties of air-cooled engines used in outdoor power equipment, boats and motorcycles.
Under federal law, consumers are not supposed to use gasoline with more than 10 percent ethanol in older vehicles or small engines. But given the higher blends are cheaper, fueling mistakes are going to happen, said Laura Timm, a Briggs & Stratton spokeswoman who helped create the Look Before You Pump campaign.
Price is the first thing Americans notice when buying gasoline, according to a Harris Interactive poll done for the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.
Two-thirds of the poll respondents also said they assumed that any gasoline sold at a gas station is safe for all of their cars as well as boats, lawn mowers, chain saws, snowmobiles, generators and other engine products.
More than 70 percent said they weren’t sure if it was legal or illegal to put gasoline containing high amounts of ethanol into small engines.
“Most consumers don’t realize there’s ethanol in gasoline today anyway, much less a higher percentage of it that could ruin their engine products,” Timm said.
Look Before You Pump will include public service announcements and printed materials to remind people they shouldn’t use gasoline containing more than 10 percent ethanol in small engines and vehicles manufactured before 2001.
“We know the problems it’s going to cause for everything from power washers and snow throwers to utility vehicles and boat motors,” said Dan Ariens, president of Ariens Co., a Brillion, Wis., manufacturer of lawn-and-garden equipment and snow throwers.
The problems could include engine overheating, fuel line ruptures, a breakdown of plastic and rubber pieces in engines, expensive repairs and engine failure not covered by warranty.
“You will damage or destroy” a small engine with the higher blends of ethanol fuel, said Kris Kiser, executive director of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.
Engine manufacturers and automakers fought introduction of the 15 percent ethanol blend known as E15 and say they’re going to try to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require a better label at the fuel pump to prevent misfueling.
The current 3- by-6-inch orange and black label is inadequate, according to Kiser.
“Someone has to start telling consumers about this,” he said.
The risks of using E15 in vehicles have been exaggerated, according to the ethanol industry. It says the fuel blend underwent three years and millions of miles of testing by the EPA before it was introduced in the marketplace.
There haven’t been engine problems or misfueling incidents, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, which questions the need for the Look Before You Pump campaign.
“Honestly, I don’t think people are that stupid in Wisconsin” to use the wrong fuel, said Josh Morby, executive director of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance, which represents ethanol producers and farmers who grow corn to make the fuel additive.
The new ethanol promotion campaign is from Hass Grain Farms Inc., of Fond du Lac County, Wis., with $50,000 in startup money distributed equally to the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, the American Lung Association’s Wisconsin chapter, the American Coalition for Ethanol, the Renewable Fuels Association and ethanol producer Growth Energy.
The goal is to get farmers across the country to fill their tanks with ethanol fuels as a way to support rural economies, said Allen Hass, who has funded the campaign with his own money.
“We need to tell the public that ethanol is good. For years they’ve been brainwashed into thinking they should stay away from it,” Hass said.
Automakers and engine manufacturers should build products that run on 100 percent ethanol, rather than gasoline, Hass said.
Engines in Brazil burn 100 percent ethanol, and there are higher blends of the fuel additive in gasoline. Hass says the U.S. should adopt similar practices.
Engine makers say ethanol produces less energy than gasoline and that vehicles using higher blends of the additive get lower fuel mileage.
Also, there are more than 200 million small engines already in the marketplace that can handle the 10 percent ethanol blend but were not designed for E15 or higher blends, according to Briggs & Stratton.
Briggs could design engines to accommodate E15 and higher blends, but the additional technology that would be required in the engines would greatly increase the costs, said Todd Teske, Briggs & Stratton’s chairman, president and CEO.
“When consumers are expecting to pay $300 for a walk-behind lawn mower, it’s really hard to put a whole lot more cost into that engine,” Teske said.
Engine makers say the Look Before You Pump campaign isn’t anti-ethanol, but rather is necessary to prevent misfueling in their products.
Higher blends of ethanol could be coming as a result of congressional mandates for the U.S. to use more renewable energy.
“Right now, it’s still a pretty small market. But you wouldn’t know that from a lot of the angst that’s been created around this new fuel,” said Dinneen with the Renewable Fuels Association. ❖
Rick Barrett is a business writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.