Fill up at almost any pump today and you're likely to see a reminder that what you think of as gasoline can contain up to 10 percent ethanol.
The effect of that much ethanol on your car is relatively benign; it's been allowed since 1978 and over more than three decades the ethanol, mostly sourced from U.S. corn, has helped reduce our reliance on foreign oil.
Now agricultural lobbies, corn producing states, and some alt-fuel advocates are pushing to boost the allowable ethanol content in fuel to 15 percent, from the current 10 percent. A request filed last March, led by four ethanol-producing states, must be approved or denied by December 1.
Not so fast, say most major automakers, which are fighting this because it could be more damaging to vehicles and be costly in the long run.
"Our concern is consumers—and potential warranty claims against manufacturers," said Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes eleven automakers including the Big Three. Territo acknowledged that some emissions rules in place require original components to function for 150,000 miles while the most significant testing of more ethanol-rich blends have only drawn from a few thousand miles of driving exposure.
For many years now, specially built vehicles have been capable of using E85, which is 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent petroleum-based. When running E85, those vehicles get fewer miles per gallon of fuel, yet automakers receive a credit toward their Corporate Average Fuel Economy—the federal government's program to regulate fuel efficiency.
Territo notes that automakers aren't fighting an increase in ethanol content as some sources have reported; rather they're urging to extend the timeline and use $17 million to fund a study in ethanol impact before any decisions are made. What the group is opposing is a hasty decision when so little has been done to study the longer-term affects of running vehicles on the different blend.
The latest ethanol boost would be in addition to a Congressional requirement to up our use of ethanol from 11 billion gallons next year (already up 60 percent from 2007) to 36 billion gallons by 2022, according to the Detroit News. A number of sources have recently suggested that the U.S. will have trouble raising production at the rate needed to meet those goals—or meeting it with E15 alone even if we were to change all of our pumps to it.
This is a matter in which several major environmental groups are siding with automakers rather than the Environmental Protection Agency. The Union of Concerned Scientists has spoken out against the surge in corn-based ethanol that this plan will lead to; new Purdue University research has found that increased acreage dedicated to corn-based ethanol will result in increased groundwater pollution; and a number of other organizations have argued that an increase in ethanol use, considering well-to-wheels impact, could actually raise greenhouse-gas emissions and lead to further rises in food prices.
With the higher fuel economy numbers, drivers in some regions would experience slightly lower fuel economy from ethanol blends than they would 100-percent petro gasoline. There also remain plenty of questions yet to be answered about compatibility, and if lower-ethanol fuels would be available for a number of years as the new regulation is phased in.