As was expected, the federal EPA today granted a limited waiver to permit the sale of motor fuel with up to 15 percent ethanol (so-called E15), but limited its sale to model-year 2007-and-newer cars and light trucks. For now, E15 may not be used in older cars and trucks, or in motorcycle, marine and other off-road engines. For 30 years, the ethanol content of motor fuel has been limited to 10 percent ethanol.

We've been reporting on the issues of ethanol in marine fuel for a few years now:
Outboard Expert: Ethanol Issues (April 2007)
Ethanol and Winterizing: What You Need to Know (Oct. 2007)
Outboard Expert: 5 Ways to Avoid Engine Trouble This Season (June 2009)

As expected, almost everyone who cares denounced the EPA decision, except for the ethanol producers that requested it. The EPA waiver has been promoted by farm-state Congressional delegations, because, in the United States, most ethanol is made from corn, and its production is subsidized by the federal government. Oil companies, fuel retailers, auto manufacturers, powersports manufacturers and retailers, and the marine industry were all opposed to the waiver. Marine engine manufacturers are concerned that none of their products – or the fuel systems of boats – are certified to operate on fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol.

Ethanol has been approved for sale at some pumps as a 15-percent blend.

Ethanol has been approved for sale at some pumps as a 15-percent blend.


An EPA spokesperson told reporters today that preliminary testing had found that E15  was safe for use in 2007 and newer cars, which consume about one-third of the motor fuel used in the United States. The EPA will announce a decision about use of E15 in 2001-newer cars and trucks next month. It does not expect to approve the fuel for use in older vehicles or other engines for some time, as it needs to conduct tests on each type of engine.

The main concern of the marine industry is that E15 will be available for sale before that testing has been completed on marine engines and fuel systems, giving boat owners an opportunity to purchase the fuel by mistake, or simply because it is less expensive than E10 fuel.

“We are extremely disappointed that EPA is allowing this fuel to enter the market without the appropriate scientific data or consumer and environmental safeguards,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich said in a statement. “This decision not only adversely impacts marine manufacturers, but creates a significant risk of misfueling for the nation's 66 million boaters, who will be left 'holding the bag' for performance issues and expensive repairs.”

There are still hurdles to clear before E15 hits the market. First, the EPA needs to develop some rules on labeling E15 at the pump. It will also have to re-write all of the standards for fuel-handling equipment, from tanks to pumps, because those standards were all created around E10 fuel. Finally, there’s the question of whether fuel retailers even want to sell E15 if it can’t be used by many cars and trucks. They would have to install a separate storage tank for the E15, or stop selling premium fuel and then use that tank for E15. The New York Times reported today that, according to RL Polk, even if the EPA grants an E15 waiver for 2001-newer vehicles, it would only cover 52 percent of the cars and trucks on the road today, and none of the motorcycles.

As this all shakes out, one thing has not changed for boat owners – don’t buy ethanol fuel. Every marine engine manufacturer and shop tech I’ve talked to advised that if it’s possible to avoid fuel with any ethanol in it, boaters should make that choice. Ethanol continues to be a source of engine trouble for boaters across the county. If you can’t avoid E10 fuel, try to buy gasoline at a busy station to get the freshest fuel possible, store your boat with a full fuel tank, install a 10-micron fuel filter, and use a fuel stabilizer in every tank of gas, unless you know you’ll be burning it all in a week or two.

In a final, ironic, twist, it was also reported in today’s New York Times that a government report of “precariously tight” grain supplies has driven up corn futures prices. The hike in prices is linked to a failed harvest in Russia and a smaller than expected corn crop in the United States. No word on how higher corn prices might affect the cost of ethanol.

Charles Plueddeman