More corn for our cars is a bad idea

Ear of corn

I think the Environmental Protection Agency's recent decision to let oil companies put more ethanol into regular motor fuel is a big mistake.

Until now, the EPA has limited ethanol to no more than 10% by volume.

That’s why it’s commonly called E10, and you see those stickers on gas pumps that say, “This fuel may contain up to 10% ethanol.”

But the EPA recently gave the green light to refineries to market E15, a fuel with 15% ethanol.

Most of the ethanol used for fuel in the United States is distilled from corn and has not turned out to be the savvy alternative to imported oil that its boosters claimed.

Burning a gallon of ethanol generates only 65% of the energy of burning a gallon of gasoline. And, according to the EPA's own studies, ethanol burns dirtier than gasoline.

Ethanol is pricey, too.

A 2010 Congressional Budget Office tally found that roughly $2 of taxpayer money is required, above and beyond what we pay at the pump, to subsidize the creation of every gallon of corn ethanol.

But the real problem is that ethanol can damage your car's engine if it isn't engineered to burn it.

The EPA contends that most vehicles built in 2000 or later can burn E15 without any engine damage or loss of performance, according to a recent story in the trade publication Automotive News.

But nine car companies have sent letters to the EPA disputing that assertion and criticizing the decision to allow E15.

Toyota, for example, says that only engines specifically designed to burn E85 -- a gasoline-ethanol blend that's 85% ethanol -- can burn E15 without risking damage and hurting performance.

I contacted Toyota and was told that, because the owner's manuals in most of its vehicles recommend not using a blend of gasoline containing more than 10% alcohol, using E15 could void the warranty.

I suspect other carmakers hold a similar position.

Although the EPA doesn't mandate E15, it opens the door for gas stations to sell it with appropriate warning labels displayed on their pumps.

But how many consumers will notice that the label on the gas pump now says their fuel may contain up to 15% ethanol, rather than 10%?

Not many, I suspect.

And how many will know that it could damage their engines?

Even fewer, I suspect.

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