Lamberty Report: "More Clarification from EPA on Blends Beyond E10"
by Ron Lamberty
In response to a request from the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. EPA has issued another letter clarifying the legality of stations offering mid-level blends like E20, E30, or E40. Unfortunately, that letter has been widely (and possibly intentionally) misinterpreted to petroleum marketers as a warning against selling mid-level blends. The letter says that blends of more than 10 percent ethanol may damage emissions control systems, may be in violation of tampering provisions of the Clean Air Act, and as a result, may be assessed huge fines by the EPA.
Strangely, they all overlooked the fourth sentence of the letter which was one of the only definitive statements in the document: “ The Clean Air act does not, however, prohibit retail stations from selling gasoline blended with up to 85 percent ethanol for use in flexible-fueled vehicles or engines .”
The “mays” in EPA’s responses seem to indicate there isn’t a definitive response to the question of whether a retailer can actually be fined when a customer – duly warned of an ethanol content above 10 percent and informed that the fuel is for FFVs only – intentionally puts more than 10 percent ethanol in his own car. The law most often cited as being violated by “misfuelers” is called the “tampering” provision of the Clean Air Act, which prohibits people from “rendering inoperative emissions control devices or elements of design on a motor vehicle.” EPA says a station may violation the act when someone puts E30 in their car.
The main intent of EPA’s letter was to crack down on ethanol “cheats” who add ethanol beyond 10 percent to make more money, without telling customers. We can’t quarrel with that. But it is ironic that two recent incidents of ethanol “cheating” might actually make a better case that higher ethanol blends don’t render pollution control systems inoperative.
Gas stations in two small Iowa towns and a marina on California’s Catalina Island are being investigated for selling ethanol blends above 10 percent. The irony is that none of the cases resulted from customer complaints – not even in the boats served by the marina. The violations were only discovered when the fuel was tested by local regulators. In one case, tests were prompted by the smell of the fuel. Given recent media reports of potential boat engine devastation from E10, the lack of complaints over the E40 found in the marina’s tanks was particularly interesting.
The issue of mid-level blends is far from decided, and while petroleum marketers have been made aware of what the law may say, we’ll do our best to see they also know what the law actually does say.