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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Fearing ethanol damage, engine makers want current gas blends to stay

March 28, 2011

Briggs & Stratton Co. and other engine manufacturers want the government to ensure that current grades of gasoline will remain available when fuel with a higher ethanol content – which could damage engines – is introduced as soon as this summer.

The manufacturers, represented by the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute and 11 other trade groups, have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to require the continued availability of gasoline with no more than 10% ethanol content.

Ethanol is a fuel additive made from corn. The EPA has approved a 15% blend for newer-model vehicles that could be available this summer, according to petitioners that represent Wisconsin engine makers Briggs & Stratton, Mercury Marine Inc., Kohler Co., BRP Inc., and companies in other states.

The higher ethanol blend, E15, could damage or ruin millions of engines, according to the manufacturers, because their products were not designed to run on fuel with more than 10% ethanol in it.

Overheating and engine performance are among the problems that face owners of boats, lawn mowers and other outdoor power products if they’re mistakenly fueled with E15.

“Misfueling is our primary concern,” said Kris Kiser, executive vice president of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.

“People mostly buy gasoline based on price. If they can get E15 cheaper, that’s what they’re going to buy.”

Engine makers also worry that the higher ethanol blend will supplant access to E10 gasoline with 10% ethanol, the current fuel used across much of the country.

“Many gasoline stations may not be equipped to accommodate an additional fuel, leading them to choose between E15 and E10, and E15 will likely win out since it may be more profitable,” Kiser said.

The fuel additive is subsidized by a federal tax credit, which blenders can keep or pass on to consumers. Raising the blend to 15% will create new sales opportunities for the producers.

Wisconsin ranks 7th among ethanol-producing states.

Advocates say the marketplace, rather than engine makers, ought to determine what fuels are available.

Retailers will provide what consumers want, said Josh Morby, executive director of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance, which represents ethanol producers.

Ideally, Morby said, gasoline stations would have fuel dispensers where the consumer could choose what ethanol blend they want, ranging 10% to E85, which is 85% ethanol.

“It comes down to consumer choice, and right now the choice isn’t there for people to use E15,” Morby said.

The EPA regulates fuel additives, including ethanol. Monday, an agency spokeswoman said there was no date set for a ruling on the engine manufacturers’ petition.

The agency is writing rules for clear labeling on fuel pumps so that consumers won’t use the wrong blend when E15 becomes available. But engine makers say they expect misfueling, partly based on their past experience with fuel changes.

There was a misfueling rate of 15% when the U.S. made the transition from leaded to unleaded gasoline in the 1970s, according to engine manufacturers.

There are 70 million Briggs & Stratton engines in the United States that would be adversely affected by E15, said Briggs spokeswoman Laura Timm.

“It’s a significant concern for us, unless a mainline fuel (such as E10) remains available,” Timm said.

Not knowing what the next fuel blend will be makes it difficult for companies to design engines, she added.

There is technical and anecdotal evidence that even 10% ethanol blends have damaged boat engines, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

“We think the EPA has an obligation to make sure there’s a fuel available for boats and small engines,” said Christine Pomorski, spokeswoman for the association that represents Fond du Lac-based Mercury Marine and other boat-engine makers.