More ethanol in our gas? Maybe next year, EPA says.

Staff writerDecember 1, 2009 

The EPA agreed with automakers and other engine manufacturers today that more testing is needed to determine whether American cars would be damaged by a proposed 50 percent increase in the concentration of ethanol allowed in gasoline.

The agency said it hopes to rule by mid-2010 on an ethanol industry petition to approve 15 percent ethanol (E15) for gas-fueled cars and trucks, up from the current 10 percent (E10) standard.

Also expected next summer is an EPA ruling on fuel pump labels to help consumers avoid pumping more ethanol than their cars and lawnmowers can handle. That's an issue with drivers who accidentally damage their cars with 85 percent ethanol (E85) fuel (see recent Road Worrier column with reader comments).

The EPA has proposed stiffer warning labels that would say E85 use is prohibited except for flex-fuel cars designed to use it, and that E85 can damage other cars.

Preliminary tests of cars built after 2001 suggest that their fuel and emissions systems are built tough enough to stomach E15, an EPA official said in a letter to Growth Energy Inc., an ethanol lobby group.

And the letter indicated that the EPA looks favorably on the E15 proposal as it pushes to meet a congressional mandate for more renewable fuels.

"To achieve the renewable fuel requirements in future years, it is clear that ethanol will need to be blended into gasoline at levels greater than the current limit of 10 percent," said the letter signed by Gina McCarthy, assistant EPA administrator.

Former Gen. Wesley Clark, Growth Energy's co-chairman, told reporters in a conference call that EPA's letter was "basically a positive answer," The New York Times reported.

Automakers have warned that an increase above the 10 percent limit could damage some cars and void their warranties. Makers of boat and other engines that use gas also have expressed worry about ethanol damage. The high alcohol content of E85 makes it more corrosive than gasoline to metal and rubber engine parts.

More E15 car test results will be availalbe next May, McCarthy's letter said.

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