TOPPENISH, Wash. — A newly approved gasoline blend that contains more ethanol is causing a stir among automakers and fuel retailers, who say the industry isn’t ready for the change.
They fear the new fuel will become an industry standard that will void warranties on many newer vehicles and force gas station owners into costly upgrades to their pumps.
While the higher ethanol blend hasn’t shown up in this state yet, state regulators say they are ready for it.
Meanwhile, biofuel advocates say any worries are based on misconceptions, and that the fuel has been extensively tested by the federal Department of Energy without any sign of problems.
Called E15, the new fuel contains 15 percent ethanol, 5 percent more than standard fuel sold now at pumps across the country and in Washington state. A biofuel, ethanol is made from organic material such as corn. Designed to burn cleaner, reduce emissions and help reduce dependency on foreign oil, the new fuel recently received the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval to be used in 2001 and later vehicles, and currently is sold mostly in the Midwest.
Now, AAA is calling for the suspension of the sale of E15 before it reaches more outlets, saying that it potentially can harm engines of older vehicles and void warranties of many newer ones that were not designed to use it.
“We just believe that this product is not ready for the market because cars are not designed to use it,” said AAA spokesman Michael Green in Washington, D.C. “Five (auto) manufacturers say their warranties will not cover E15 claims.”
Chrysler, Nissan, BMW, Toyota and Volkswagen say their warranties will not cover claims caused by the use of E15. And Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo say the use of E15 may void warranties, according to AAA.
To try to protect customers from unwittingly putting E15 into their cars, the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees fuel quality at stations in the state, has established E15 label requirements for pumps.
“The regulations are in place when it does show up in the marketplace, but we’re not seeing it yet,” said Jerry Buendel, manager of the Agriculture Department’s fuel weights and measures program.
Fuel station owners like Mike Chandler, who has stations in Granger and Toppenish, fear the new fuel may become a new standard, forcing costly equipment upgrades.
“Probably 98 percent of the stations across the nation physically do not have the equipment to support E15,” he said, explaining that new pumps would cost him about $15,000 a pop.
Tim Hamilton, executive director of Automotive United Trades, a McCleary-based nonprofit trade association, said ethanol causes tank monitors, sensors and dispensers to wear out faster.
He also contends that more ethanol in fuel equates to poorer gas mileage, and subsequently wouldn’t reduce dependency on foreign oil. “We have real concerns about E15,” Hamilton said. “What we’re worried about is that the government will go wild with E15 and mandate it.”
But officials with the national Renewable Fuels Association in Washington, D.C., a trade association of ethanol producers, say the fuel has been extensively tested and that concerns are blown out of proportion.
“It’s the most tested fuel in the history of the United States,” said Robert White, the association’s director of market development. “Through 6 million-plus miles of testing, there was nothing found that there would be an issue with E15 and 2001 vehicles and newer.”
White said there are many misconceptions. He said nothing has determined that the new fuel would damage older cars. That notion, he said, comes from the fact that only cars dating back to 2001 were tested. He said the reason only those cars were tested is simple: The DOE buys and tests cars within that range to determine if they meet emission standards that are guaranteed to last 10 years.
“So that’s where the date came from,” he said. “Many think there is something more significant to the date than that, and there’s not.”
He also said pumps can be retrofitted with a kit at under $1,000 apiece to dispense E15.
“Keep in mind that 40,000 to 50,000 dispensers (nationwide) are replaced annually,” he said. “Not a deal-breaker for sure.”
Besides, federal demand for cleaner emissions has automakers planning to build vehicles that will operate using fuel with up to 20 percent ethanol, he said.
As far as warranties, White said the biofuel industry isn’t advocating people use E15 if it’s not covered under their warranties.
“But the automakers said in order for them to deny a claim on one of their automobiles, (automakers) would have to prove that it was E15 that caused (the problem).”
Any loss of mileage would be minimal, he said. “In fact, I’d be surprised if most would even notice.”
• Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or email@example.com.