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 ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

State legislators are considering a bill that would limit the amount of corn ethanol in gasoline at the current 10 percent.

The bill is one of four that were debated in public hearings and work sessions of the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources during the last several weeks. The measures called for a range of options, from keeping gasoline blends at the existing ethanol level, possibly raising or lowering the percentage of the additive or eliminating it altogether.

Lawmakers heard from officials of state government, representatives of the energy industry, agriculture, auto dealers and recreation and tourism interests, as well as private citizens, that ethanol – even at a 10 percent mix – is causing a host of problems that should lead to a re-evaluation of the additive.

The federal government has been exerting pressure to raise the amount of ethanol in gasoline as part of the transition to more renewable energy sources.

At issue in the ethanol debate are concerns over what the Maine Automobile Dealers Association has described as potentially damaging mechanical effects of ethanol blends at 10 percent and 15 percent. The lower mixture results in decreased fuel efficiency by as much as 3 miles per gallon, and the higher is corrosive and further reduces fuel economy, the association has maintained.

But such claims barely scratch the surface of problems being blamed on ethanol and driving the debate in Maine over how to regulate the corn-based additive to gasoline.

FEDERAL PUSH IS ON

The controversy has been spurred by the federal push to raise ethanol blends to 15 percent – or higher, some industry experts predict – to meet renewable fuel standards created by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 and expanded in 2007.

"This is a national problem, not just a Maine one," said committee member Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth.

In Thursday, the committee voted 10-1 to send an amended version of one bill, L.D. 453, to the full Legislature with a recommendation to pass it. It would hold the line at 10 percent corn ethanol by prohibiting the sale of blends with higher proportions of the additive.

No date had been set for full legislative debate or a vote.

The committee also recommended that the full Legislature reject proposals to join other states in banning ethanol, limiting the additive to 5 percent, or raising it to 15 percent by allowing the higher percentage blends to be sold – with the caveat that station owners could not be compelled to offer it.

Only one proposal was soundly defeated at the committee level. It would have stipulated that distributors, blenders or retail dealers could not be required to sell, consign or distribute 10 percent blends – which could have created a need for a "boutique fuel" for Maine, different enough from the general standard that it could push gas prices higher. Members voted unanimously to advise that the Legislature not pass the measure.

REPLACEMENT FOR MTBE

As an additive to gasoline, ethanol replaced methyl tertiary-butyl ether; better known as MTBE, which was mixed into gasoline to lower emissions and burn gasoline more fully and efficiently in vehicles produced in the mid-'80s or earlier. The substance was banned by a number of states because it was linked to groundwater pollution, and by the early 2000s, ethanol, made almost exclusively with corn, was being promoted as a substitute.

Now it has come under fire, too – even from environmental officials.

Most gasoline blends across the United States are limited to 10 percent ethanol. But the EPA has ruled that the blend can be increased to 15 percent for use in certain vehicles, and the higher ethanol mix has begun to be sold in other areas of the country.

PROBLEMS FOR MOTORISTS

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.

CORN PRICES RISE

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:

ncairn@pressherald.com

 

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