March 31, 2013

Lawmakers weigh limit on ethanol in gas

A bill would hold the line at 10 percent corn ethanol in gas by prohibiting the sale of blends with higher proportions.

By North Cairn
Staff Writer

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Marc Cone, director of the Bureau of Air Quality with the state Department of Environmental Protection, told committee members that many motorists who do not understand the complexities of ethanol additives could run into trouble with blends of more than 10 percent.

"With EPA allowing and promoting distribution of gasoline with 15 percent ethanol ... the (department) is concerned with potential problems consumers and fuel station owners may suffer," he said. Upping the percentage of ethanol in gasoline or switching to alternative additives could result in higher gas prices or unintentional environmental risks, he warned.

The reluctance to allow more ethanol in gasoline mixes has resulted from widespread concern that, while most cars tend to tolerate a 10 percent mix, the jump to 15 percent ethanol may damage fuel lines, corrode fuel pumps and void warranties on some cars.

During public testimony on the issue, the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources heard consistently that with even a 10 percent mixture, mechanical problems are plaguing certain makes and models of cars, motorcycles, snowmobiles, planes, boat motors and gasoline-fueled equipment for landscaping and other household uses.

Many of the difficulties seem to affect older cars, said Pat Moody, director of public affairs for the American Automobile Association, Northern New England. "It's not like one size fits all with ethanol." More education is needed to help consumers use the appropriate blend for different makes, models and years of manufacture, he advised.

"I think this ethanol thing is a terrible problem for the state of Maine," said Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, D-Aroostook County. He criticized ethanol not only because of its effect on vehicle performance but also because federal subsidies on crops such as corn can result in farmers getting paid twice for what they raise, leading to stiff competition for feed for farm animals or food staples for people here and abroad.


Federal energy requirements, by creating a solid market for corn – already the most subsidized crop at between $5 billion and $8 billion annually – have also sent corn prices skyrocketing, exacerbating competition between food and fuel markets, opponents contend.

"It helps Midwest farmers, but it's certainly not doing our constituents any good," Jackson said. "I just don't see the benefit of it."

"The arrogance of burning our food in our fuel – it's a tragedy beyond imagining," said Turner dairy farmer Ralph Caldwell, outraged at the percentage of the American corn crop that is being used for ethanol at the expense of dairy, beef and other farmers -- and consumers. He called for expanded research into other fuel-source alternatives, such as prairie switchgrass, which was developed as a biofuel in 2011.

"Ethanol is running me out of business," Caldwell said. "It is the most tragic thing to hit animal agriculture in my lifetime."

But Stephen Dodge, associate director of the New England Petroleum Council, said ethanol is likely here to stay and that the real problem is the limited choice in biofuel sources. He urged lawmakers to reject a 15 percent ethanol blend, however, because too many questions about it remain unsettled.

"We're just not there yet," he said. "There are loads of problems, and more study needs to be done."

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:


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