Editorial: Can’t we keep gas from turning to goo?
The 2005 renewable fuel standard, a law that requires gasoline refiners to add ethanol, an alcohol made primarily from corn, to the fuel mixture sold to consumers has been a boon to farmers and the bane of owners of lawn mowers, chain saws, outboard motors and other small engines. It’s almost as if the ethanol, after more than a few weeks in a gas can or weedwhacker, begins to turn into corn pudding, a gummy gelatinous substance that fouls carburetors and, if the machines can be made to run at all, shortens engine life.
Big Corn and Big Oil are now battling over the fate of the law. The oil industry wants the ethanol requirement reduced or repealed altogether. The corn lobby – up to 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop is now used not for food or animal feed but fuel – wants to preserve the mandate, along with the hefty subsidies paid to producers of renewable fuels. We say, leave it, change it or scrap it, but just give consumers a break and make it possible to buy gasoline that doesn’t turn to goo.
Proponents of repeal call the ethanol requirement an expensive boondoggle with little or no environmental benefit, a mandate that drives up the cost of food and fuel. It may even be, as some contend, that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than a gallon of gasoline. It certainly takes a lot more water in an age where water is being fought over. The other side sees ethanol from corn as a necessary step toward energy independence, one that reduces pollution by making engines burn cleaner.
Virtually all gasoline, as the labels on pumps warn, contains up to 10 percent ethanol, a limit that the EPA recently raised to 15 percent if the fuel is burned in modern vehicles. Because E15 gasoline, as it’s called, damages or destroys small engines, its use in them is banned. It’s virtually impossible to buy bulk gasoline without ethanol so mechanics and trade organizations like the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute recommend adding gas stabilizers and ethanol treatment additives to gas. They also suggest storing gasoline slated to be used in a small engine for no more than a few weeks. The unused fuel should then be dumped into the tank of a vehicle where it will be diluted and burned in a bigger engine. How much of that gasoline winds up on the ground is anyone’s guess. How much the ethanol mandate costs consumers in expensive fuel system replacements and shortened equipment life is something Congress should determine before voting to retain the ethanol requirement. Equipment owners who want to avoid equipment malfunctions and the need to play musical gas cans can purchase ethanol-free gasoline sold by some power equipment retailers. A quart goes for roughly the price of two gallons of gasoline.
The renewable fuel standard was well-meaning legislation rendered irrelevant by the rapid increase in fuel efficiency standards and vehicle technology. Consumers are burning much less gas while farmers, save during droughts, are producing more ethanol than refiners can safely mix with gasoline. The law has kept mechanics busy, been good for power equipment sales, and spawned whole new industries producing little cans of ethanol-free fuel and $10 containers of gasoline additives to counter the evil effects of demon alcohol.
From our vantage point, far from the endless fields of Midwestern maize, running vehicles on food seems like not just a boondoggle but an environmental dead end. Millions of otherwise fallow acres have been ploughed up and put into corn to meet a government-created demand for a troublesome fuel most people would prefer not to buy.