A letter from Congressional committee chairs to the federal Environmental Protection Agency is the latest tactic being employed by the marine industry and other parties opposed to the agency granting a waiver permitting the sale of “E-15” motor fuel across the country. The waiver, which was requested by a group representing ethanol producers, would allow gasoline with up to 15 percent ethanol to be sold. The current limit is 10 percent. The EPA has indicated it will make a decision on the waiver request before the end of September.

Ten-percent ethanol tags may soon have 15-percent tags at the next pump over.

Ten-percent ethanol tags may soon have 15-percent tags at the next pump over.

The marine industry has been opposed to the waiver because no current marine engine is certified to operate on fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol, and use of fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol could void engine warranties. The industry also cites a broad range of fuel-related issues that have plagued boat owners as E-10 fuel has become more widely available – and in some states mandated. Those issues include the failure of resin-coated fuel tanks, fuel systems clogged with sludge dissolved by ethanol, and the presence of water and the “phase separation” of fuel in boat fuel tanks, most of which are vented to the atmosphere.

The letter, sent by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and signed by members of both parties, asks the EPA how it plans to ensure that “increasing the permissible level of ethanol in gasoline is accomplished in a way that does not present any potential harm to … consumer’s investments in cars, trucks and other engines and equipment.” By policy, the EPA must review all congressional inquiries. Meanwhile, a group of 39 powersports, environmental, and agricultural organizations including the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society/ESPN Outdoors, BoatUS, the National Boating Federation, Sail America, and the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, have requested that House and Senate committees conduct hearings on the issue before the EPA issues its decision on granting the waiver.

Meanwhile, according to Radio Iowa, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made comments during a visit to the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 17 that indicate the E-15 waiver is all but a done deal.

“I think that the E.P.A. administrator has indicated that we’re going to have E-15.  I think when she talked about labeling and starting to work on that, that’s an indication we’re going to have it,” Vilsack reportedly said. “The question is what vehicles will it apply to and, then, how do we build the industry from there.”

If the waiver is granted, we’d likely see E-15 fuel offered next to separate pumps for E-10 fuel, a situation the marine industry fears could lead to mis-fueling and to confusion among consumers, similar to that which occurred when leaded and unleaded fuel were available.

“Many consumers will just reach for the pump with the lowest-price fuel,” Mark Riechers, director of regulatory development at Mercury Marine. “If that happens to be E-15 and it goes in a boat with a fuel system not designed for that fuel, we’ll have problems. We could also see a scenario, if E-15 replaces E-10, where the only fuel available for boats and many other engines is premium with no ethanol.”

Meanwhile, Mercury Marine and Volvo Penta have just begun testing E-15 fuel in a variety of marine engines and will send those test results to the Department of Energy. Mercury will test using current four-stroke engines and older EFI two-stroke outboards, and according to Riechers those tests won’t be completed until the end of the year. Mercury will be testing for both durability and for emissions compliance, said Riechers, who adds that “we could see some big issues with emissions using E-15.”

Sloppy blending is also a concern, according to one marine engine expert I spoke to, who did not want to be quoted because he’s not authorized to comment for his company.

“The truth is that when fuel is labeled E-10, we often find the amount of ethanol in the fuel is much higher than 10 percent,” he said. “We need to test at higher and higher values of ethanol, higher than E-15, to find out at what point damage might be done.”

Even if the EPA grants the E-15 waiver, it could take some time to get the fuel to market, as regulations and standards for the entire fuel-delivery system, from underground tanks to pumps and filters, which today are designed only for E-10 or for alternative fuels like E-85, would need to be re-written.