American boaters have an alcohol problem. I’m not talking about beer in the fish box, but the ethanol in our gasoline supply—which has been the bane of boaters and marine dealer service managers for more than a decade. Now the amount of ethanol blended with motor fuel could go even higher, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), which is calling on boaters to comment on a May 29, 2015, proposal by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The NMMA says that the proposal will lead to the proliferation of E15 fuel (containing 15 percent ethanol) that is incompatible with marine engines.

e 15

Consumers running outboard engines don't want ethanol in the first place, and the move to E 15 could spell trouble.

The government has opened a public comment period until July 27th. To support opposition to the EPA proposal, the NMMA has set up a comment page directed to the EPA. That opposition has the backing of marine engine manufacturers.

“Yamaha urges all of our dealers, boat builders and consumers to make their voices heard as EPA solicits comments on its unfortunate plan to increase ethanol volume in the fuel supply,” said Martin Peters, Yamaha Manager of Government Relations. “It is very clear from industry research that ethanol in quantities of 15 percent or greater damages outboard motor components – not just fuel systems but also internal components such as pistons and valves.

Current fuel policy is rooted in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that originated in 2005 and expanded as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. The intention of the RFS is to encourage the development of a renewable fuel supply by requiring transportation fuel sold in the U.S. to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuels. Ethanol derived from corn would initially be the most-available source of renewable fuel, but it was hoped the mandate of the EISA would eventually spur the development of fuels derived from biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol made from grasses and wood chips. The EISA mandates that the amount of renewable fuel blended with motor fuel increase each year, with an eventual target of 36 billion gallons by 2022.

The forecast original devised by Congress, however, has turned out to be unrealistic. Consumers are simply not buying enough motor fuel to consume all the ethanol mandated by the EISA. Drivers cut back on travel during the economic downturn, the fuel economy of the domestic vehicle fleet keeps improving, and where they have a choice, consumers have chosen not to buy ethanol-blend fuels. The solution proposed several years ago by ethanol producers was to allow the sale of E15. The ethanol content of motor fuel was previous capped at 10 percent (so-called E10 fuel).

This is a big problem for boaters, because all gasoline-powered marine engines and boat fuel systems are designed to operate safely on no more than 10 percent ethanol. In fact, using a fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol will void the warranty of most marine engines. In theory E10 will still be available alongside E15 (which is already appearing in some markets), and the E15 is supposed to be dispensed from pumps or nozzles with special markings. But the NMMA position is that because E15 is expected to cost less per gallon than E10, consumers will be tempted to buy it anyway, or won’t know any better and pump it into their boats. There’s also concern that retailers will need to cut back on the E10 supply and replace it with E15 in order to sell enough ethanol to meet the mandate.

“If E15 becomes the predominate motor fuel, boaters will mis-fuel their outboards, and they will experience damage and or complete failure,” said Peters. “There are more than eight million outboards currently in use, and all of them will be at risk.”

On May 29 the EPA proposed requiring refiners to blend 17.4 billion gallons of renewable fuels in 2016, well below the 22.3 billion target set by Congress. EPA officials note the 2016 proposal is still nine percent more than actual 2014 production. This sounds like a compromise, but it’s still an increase the NMMA feels will put more and more ethanol in the fuel supply, to the detriment of boat owners. The marine industry wants the ethanol content of motor fuel capped at 10 percent.

And lest you think the marine industry is merely crying foul without putting its best foot forward, remember that it has gone the extra mile, including investing in tests of other biofuels in boats; see Butanol: the Next Great Biofuel for Boats, to read about how proactive the marine industry has been in this regard.

And you can register your thoughts with the powers that be at the NMMA's Action Center.