(Health Secrets Newsletter) Getting ready for this summer’s driving season may take a bit of extra thought. Late last year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave approval for upping the content of ethanol in gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent for use in vehicles manufactured after 2001. Although this new mixture will start showing up in gas stations this summer, it’s not good news for our vehicles or for the world in which we live.
Until now E10 has been the standard vehicle fuel. It’s made from gasoline blended with ethanol, an alcohol currently being made from the starches of plants, primarily corn. The designation E10 means 10 percent corn ethanol has been added to the gasoline. With the addition of another 5 percent ethanol, the blend becomes more corrosive, burns hotter, and may void some vehicle warranties. E15 has been shown to cause severe damage to small engines such as found in lawnmowers, boats, ATVs, chain saws, snow mobiles, and snow and leaf blowers. It also eats away at standard storage tanks and pipelines. The U.S. Coast Guard has opposed the introduction of E15 into the fuel supply because higher ethanol blends could cause marine engines to stall and leave boaters adrift.
In addition to wreaking havoc on engines, E15 will increase stress to the environment. Ethanol combustion yields larger amounts of formaldehyde and other related substances such as acetaldehyde. This leads to a significantly larger photochemical reactivity that generates much more ground level ozone. The Clean Fuels Report shows ethanol exhaust generates 2.14 times as much ozone as gasoline exhaust. When this is entered into the report’s Localized Pollution Index, the pollution that contributes to smog is 70 percent greater with E15 than with gasoline.
Growing corn for ethanol production increases use of pesticides and fertilizers which pollute streams, lakes and groundwater. Sensitive lands such as grassed buffers, stream banks and wetlands are being planted with corn to fulfill federal ethanol mandates and maximize corn growers’ profits, but wildlife habitat is being destroyed. In their zest to cash out on corn, farmers have stopped traditional annual rotations with wheat, soybeans and other crops, further depleting America’s already depleted farm lands.
A recent National Research Council report found that producing corn ethanol uses significantly more water than making gasoline. And of course with so much of our land and resources given to producing corn, food grown for human consumption is at a premium that we feel whenever we shop for groceries. Poor people in developing countries spend a larger percentage of their income on food, so are disproportionately penalized by rising food prices.
The EPA has issued a new ethanol label for gas stations that will carry E15. These labels should start showing up on gas pumps this summer.
Although most of us want to see a reduced dependence on fossil fuels and a conservation of natural resources, the effort to make corn ethanol an alternative transportation fuel is misleading. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a consumer watchdog organization, has performed numerous analyses showing that corn ethanol does not significantly reduce American dependence on foreign oil, is harmful to the environment, and contributes to higher food prices. More advanced biofuels, such as those derived from perennial grasses, or agricultural residues may be better alternatives that do not compete with the food supply, but production of these fuels is still in its infancy.
Why the introduction of E15 when its drawbacks are so apparent? Lobbyists for the ethanol industry argue that automotive fuel is about to hit a “blend wall”, the point at which more ethanol is produced than the market for E10 can absorb. Their job is to make sure the excess production of ethanol gets sold to someone, and they have pressed for federal government approval to sell the E15 blend.
This lobby is also promoting increased sales of flex fuel vehicles that can run on E85. But this is a tough sell because the more ethanol in the fuel, the lower the vehicle’s gas mileage. Flex-fuel vehicles running on E85 get about 27 percent lower gas mileage than with gasoline.
What fuel should you buy for your car? You will have to decide whether you can accept the lower mileage that goes with use of E15, and the threat to your vehicle and environment. Don’t forget that every major car maker has said putting E15 into their vehicles may void the manufacturer’s warranty. Check with your owner’s manual for specifics. EWG has produced a wallet-sized card that lists which vehicles/engines can safely use which ethanol blends. The list of engines that can’t run on blends higher than E10 is much longer. There is a link to EWG’s card below.
EWG’s tips to reduce gas consumption
A few simple steps can save money on gas and reduce emissions more than you can imagine. Of course the best answer to ethanol is to drive an electric or natural gas powered vehicle. If that’s not feasible, here’s how to cut the economic and environmental costs of driving:
*Keep tires inflated to the recommended pressure
*Use the right grade of motor oil (check your manual)
*Replace air filters when you change oil to make your engine run more efficiently
*Replace worn spark plugs
*Repair leaks from engine oil or other fluids
*Drive the speed limit
*Avoid fast accelerations and hard braking
*Minimize air conditioner use
*Turn your engine off when idling for long periods
*Get rid of excess weight in your vehicle
*Use alternative transportation
To get EWG’s card listing cars that can be safely driven on E15, click here.