Sensenbrenner offers bill that would slow ethanol increases
By Rick Barrett of the Journal Sentinel
Feb. 7, 2012 |(18) Comments
Efforts to increase the amount of ethanol in gasoline were dealt a blow Tuesday by legislation that would block a 15% biofuel blend until more studies are done on whether it harms engines.
A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) would require a comprehensive review of fuels containing more than 10% ethanol before they're allowed in the marketplace.
By a vote of 19-7, the bill was approved by a House committee on science, space and technology. Sensenbrenner chairs the committee.
Makers of small engines, especially, have said scores of their products could be ruined if consumers use a fuel mix that contains more than 10% ethanol - a corn-based fuel additive used in most gasoline.
A 15% blend could cause premature engine failure, lower fuel efficiency and void warranties, according to some engine-makers.
"In small engines, E15 is downright dangerous," Sensenbrenner said in a news release.
"If ethanol is going to be the fuel of the future, then there should be no problem conducting independent, comprehensive scientific analysis of its effect on American drivers," Sensenbrenner said.
Ethanol advocates say those tests have already been done and Sensenbrenner's legislation is meant to stall the introduction of E15 so that oil companies benefit from lower ethanol blends.
The higher blend could be introduced this spring if it's approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees motor fuels and emission standards.
E15 gasoline would be clearly labeled so that consumers don't mistakenly use it in small, older engines where it could be harmful, according to ethanol advocates. Also, they say, it's already been proven safe to use in automobile engines.
"Give consumers a choice. That's all we have asked for," said Gary Kramer, president of Badger State Ethanol in Monroe.
"This bill is a perfect example of Congress trying to address a problem that doesn't exist," Kramer said.
Wisconsin ranks seventh among ethanol-producing states. The fuel additive is an important source of income for grain farmers, some of whom also own shares in ethanol plants.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation supports raising the allowable ethanol in gasoline to 15%.
It would help support strong commodity prices, said Paul Zimmerman, Farm Bureau's executive director of public affairs.
"We think the marketplace is there for E15, and that people are readily accepting renewable fuels," Zimmerman said.
Starting this year, tax credits for ethanol expired, putting more pressure on the fuel additive to stand on its own merits.
"We were hoping and expecting that E15 would be available by now," said Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol.
"We will certainly be monitoring Sensenbrenner's bill and working to defeat it," Jennings said.
Wisconsin engine-makers Briggs & Stratton Corp. and Mercury Marine have said their products were not designed to run on ethanol blends greater than 10%.
In one test, paid for by the Department of Energy, a 200-horsepower Mercury Marine engine broke down after less than 300 hours of continuous operation, at full throttle, on a 15% biofuel blend. An identical engine powered by gasoline without ethanol was not damaged in the industry-standard test.
One problem with E15 is that people will mistakenly put the fuel in engines not designed to run on it, said Kris Kiser, executive vice president of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, which represents Briggs & Stratton and other engine-makers.
There are hundreds of thousands of engines in that category, Kiser said.
"The little label that the EPA came up with for E15 fuel pumps is nowhere near sufficient to effectively warn the consumer," he added.
The industry supports Sensenbrenner's bill, partly because engine-makers don't want to spend millions of dollars redesigning products every time there's a fuel change.
"We don't think there's been adequate testing of E15, and we don't think there's been adequate consumer information to warrant its introduction," Kiser said.