On the Road

10% Ethanol in your gas tank starts Easter Monday

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Enjoy driving with E5 gasoline in your fuel tank while you can.  Starting April 1, which happens to be both Easter Monday and April Fool’s Day, gasoline fuel sold and distributed by every oil company in this country should contain 10 percent bioethanol, thanks to the go signal of the National Biofuels Board (NBB).

In fact, the E10 mandate was delayed since the Biofuels Act of 2006, a.k.a. Republic Act 9637, stipulated that within four years after the law took effect on Feb. 6, 2007, the ethanol blend should increase from 5 to 10 percent. So those of us with gasoline-fed vehicles should have been getting E10 as far back as 2011.  Should we be thankful that it was delayed?

This brings up the question of how the NBB—which is chaired by the Energy secretary with the Trade, Science, Agriculture, Finance and Labor secretaries as members—can monitor the compliance of service stations nationwide with the E10 mandate.  It also revives the questions raised about the compatibility of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) with engine parts and vehicles.

COMPATIBILITY. Some environmental groups like the Kaibigan ng Kaunlaran at Kalikasan (KKK) were reported last week to be seeking the presentation of results of government studies to prove E10 compatibility in vehicles under Philippine driving conditions.  If any studies were conducted at all, that is.  The KKK claims that since the passage of the Biofuels Act in 2007, no comprehensive and scientific studies have been done by the government on the effects of ethanol use in vehicles nor have extensive public consultations been conducted.  These are prerequisites to mandating an increased ethanol blend in gasoline, the KKK contends.

Looks like we are going through what many motorists in the United States concerned about the safety of their engines experienced when they fought a losing battle against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to increase ethanol content in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent.  Their primary reason for opposing E15 was based on the harmful effects of E10 which is common in the United States.

Bioethanol is light alcohol produced by fermenting starch or sugar from sugar cane, corn, cassava or nipa.  Alcohol is corrosive and attracts moisture, properties that can threaten mechanical parts.  Alcohol has a high-octane rating and engines designed to exploit that can produce significant power, but alcohol has considerably less energy content than gasoline or diesel fuel, so mileage drops as alcohol content rises.

CONFIRMED. The damage done to engines by E10 was best summarized by Russell T. Spears of Laguna Niguel, California in a letter to the editor published by the Orange County Register on Jan. 18, 2013.  Spears wrote that independent mechanics he talked to confirmed “that even 10 percent alcohol is causing much damage to automobile engines and fuel systems. The fuel pumps fail from corrosion and can stop a car on a busy freeway.  This is very dangerous.  Fuel pumps are inside the fuel tank on most cars now, and it is very expensive to have the tank removed and opened to take out the fuel pump.  Alcohol makes the engines run hotter and it wears them out sooner.  Alcohol also damages the valves requiring more expensive repairs.  Ethanol has less energy than gasoline so cars get worse mileage when it is mixed with gasoline.”

Spears wrote to the editor in reaction to columnist Marshall Kaplan’s criticism of the American Automobile Association (AAA), a federation of 51 independently operated motor clubs with 50 million members, calling for the EPA to temporarily halt sales of E15 fuel to reevaluate its potential harm. AAA’s call followed the announcement of 12 carmakers (BMW, Chrysler, Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co., Kia Motors Corp., Mazda Motor Corp., Mercedes-Benz and Volvo) that using the new E15 blend may either void warranties or that warranties may not cover fuel-related claims.

The EPA approved the sale of E15 in June 2012 despite the failure to complete tests it had outlined in 2008 to approve the waiver allowing E15 and despite AAA’s estimate that only 5 percent of cars on the road in the United States can use E15 without risk of damage.  Columnist Kaplan, defending the E15 mandate, said that the EPA and US Department of Energy conducted extensive testing of 86 cars, including up to 120,000 miles per vehicle on ethanol blends, compared to the weak methodology and statistically insignificant  study of the Coordinated Research Council that was cited by AAA.

Kaplan also said that a much higher blend of ethanol in gasoline has been used in Brazil for a long time without problems with flex-fuel cars able to safely use E85.  Kaplan conveniently forgot that flex-fuel vehicles can use up to 85 percent ethanol as they are designed to tolerate the more corrosive ethanol, including changes to fuel pumps, fuel tanks, fuel injectors, engines, control systems, various calibration capacities, emissions systems and materials used.

DECREASED MILEAGE. As for the alleged fuel economy benefits of ethanol, in 2006 Consumer Reports tests using a Chevrolet Tahoe found that E15 decreased rather than increased mileage from 21 mpg highway to 15 and from 9 mpg to 7 in city driving.  Corn ethanol may be as harmful as gasoline and an even worse health threat, a later study done by the University of Minnesota found.

Meanwhile, economists say that laws mandating the increasing use of biofuel in cars have had far-flung ripple effects as land once devoted to growing food for humans is now sometimes more profitably used for producing vehicle fuel.  The global expansion of the biofuel industry has contributed to higher food prices and a shortage of land for food-based agriculture in poor corners of Africa, Asia and Latin America because the raw material is grown wherever it is cheapest.

Over here several years ago, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago warned that biofuel is land-based and will eventually compete with food.  “Because the Philippines has a small land area, biofuel production will tend to increase over food production,”  she said. “Corporations are already searching for millions of hectares for jatropha alone.  We have to step on the brakes and decelerate.” Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez asked the House of Representatives to open an inquiry into the impact of the biofuels program on food security and global warming, pointing out that millions of hectares and a billion pesos are being committed on something that is debatable.

So whatever happened to the much-publicized government program to plant jatropha on millions of hectares towards the goal of becoming self-sustaining in bioethanol production?  Nothing more has been heard about it and yet on April Fool’s Day the ethanol content in gasoline will be increased to 10 percent.

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