(Photo by ed_needs_a_bicycle via Creative Commons)

Boating industry not backing down in Chicago E15 fight

As Chicago clamors to be known as the country’s most sustainable city – promoting solar installations, electric vehicles and energy efficiency – the City Council has been considering an ordinance that would mandate most gas stations offer gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol, or E15.

The ordinance was framed as a step to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote cleaner energy, and was seen as potentially sparking other such municipal mandates nationwide. It is sponsored by Alderman Edward Burke, who has pushed clean-air measures including the original ordinance to close the city’s coal-fired power plants and a smoking ban.

The E15 ordinance has strong backing from farmers, part of an Illinois ethanol industry reported as creating 73,156 jobs and $17.5 billion in economic activity annually. It is backed by the American Lung Association. And it also is meant to provide relief from city gas prices identified in June as the highest in the nation — E15 blends are typically cheaper 5 to 15 cents per gallon cheaper than conventional 87 or 89 octane gasoline.

The measure might seem innocuous – most gas stations already offer 10 percent ethanol blends because of federal mandates, and conventional gas would continue to be readily available under the ordinance. But it has drawn strident opposition from forces including the oil industry and also the Midwestern marine industry, which sells and repairs boats for use on Lake Michigan, the Chicago River and other local waterways and lakes.

Dead in the water?

On July 28, after a five-hour committee hearing, the Chicago City Council decided not to advance the E15 ordinance. An attorney in Burke’s office said the ordinance is still “alive” and another committee hearing is likely in September or October. Michael Frohlich, spokesman for the ethanol advocacy group Growth Energy which backs the ordinance, said it is “moving forward.”

The boating industry is continuing to push hard against the ordinance, which they say would result in unintended damage and invalidated warranties for some of the city’s 13,000 boats, while laying the groundwork for similar ordinances nationwide.

“The decision not to vote on the issue in Chicago this week was a victory for the marine industry, but we aren’t in the clear–not by a long shot,” said Lee Gordon, spokesman for Mercury Marine, an outboard motor manufacturer in Wisconsin. “We don’t know when the issue will come up again, but we all have to be ready to fight against it.”

A high-profile supporter of the ordinance has been former U.S. General Wesley Clark, now board chairman of Growth Energy. The news website DNAInfo.com quoted Clark saying E15 is “good for the economy, it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for national security.”

Warnings ignored

Higher-ethanol blend gas can damage engines of boats, motorcycles, lawn mowers and other small engines. E15 is generally only approved for cars from 2001 or later, and cars with flex-fuel engines.

Representatives of the boating industry say that especially since E15 is significantly cheaper, many boat owners would likely fill their engines with it despite or without seeing warnings posted on the pump.

About 90 percent of the boats that Chicagoans use on Lake Michigan and local rivers are small craft transported on trailers rather than stored in marinas, so most boaters fill up at regular gas stations. Mercury Marine president of global sales and marketing Kevin Grodzki said that at his home near Fox Lake in northern Illinois, he regularly sees boat owners mistakenly fill up or start to at an E15 pump. He says that it’s easy to miss the “business card-size” warning about E15 use.

“Think about how many signs there are on the gas pump,” he said. “Everything from the 89 cent coffee, the dollar hotdog, by the way did you decide you want a car wash. Nobody pays attention [to the warning].”

Concerns about E15

Ethanol can be more corrosive and burns hotter than gasoline, so the higher ethanol blend can damage gaskets, valves and seals in engines not built to handle it. Warranties for boat engines typically are invalidated if E15 gas is used, according to David Dickerson, director of state government relations for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

“If you fill up with E15 your boat engine will run rough, it’s going to be hard to start, and to restart, if you are out on the water and kill the engine,” Dickerson said. “Those are significant when you’re boating rather than driving. Being caught out on the water with no engine can be very dangerous, not just annoying.”

Dickerson said that E15 is especially a problem when boats sit for long periods of time without being used, since the higher ethanol blends are more likely to separate into ethanol, gasoline and water sitting over time. This is not typically a problem with cars or other engines that go through their fuel tanks more quickly.

There are fuel stabilizers which can be added to a gas tank to mitigate this issue. But Grodzki said this is not a good option for many boaters, especially when they are topping off a tank that has sat partially full for a while.

“Fuel stabilizers say put this in a full tank and it will be fine,” he said. “That won’t work in the majority of cases because the fuel has changed chemistry because of exposure to the elements. And it’s a pretty expensive solution.”

Marine industry representatives are also worried about pump setups where E10 and E15 are delivered through the same hose, with the customer pushing a button to choose their blend. Since several gallons of gas could be in the hose, Dickerson said, even boaters who select E10 could get some E15 in their tank.

“I have a sailboat with a little engine of only three gallons,” he said. “If the prior customer was running E15, there’s really nothing I can do –I could push exactly the right button and [still] fill that tank with E15.”

Frohlich said concerns are overblown, and that the ordinance would be a good move.

“This is just one more option for drivers who want a higher octane, higher performance fuel that also costs less, is better for the environment and creates jobs in Illinois,” he said.

5 thoughts on “Boating industry not backing down in Chicago E15 fight

  1. “Ethanol can be more corrosive and burns hotter than gasoline….”

    Actually, ethanol burns cooler than gasoline. As an oxidizing agent, it does help gasoline burn more completely, reducing unburned hydrocarbons in the exhaust.

    Some of the “sky is falling” claims about ethanol coming from the boat, motorcycle and small engine industries should be taken with a big grain of salt. They sound suspiciously similar — as if someone (Big Oil?) was writing the script.

    Let’s look at Minnesota, a state that has blended 10 ethanol (E10) in almost all its gasoline for nearly 20 years. Minnesota has the largest rate of boat ownership per capita in the USA. We have been using E10 in our boats, lawnmowers, ATVs, chainsaws, etc. for many years, with no ill effects.

    Make no mistake, I do not advocate using E15 fuels in boats, motorcycles or small engines. But the hysteria and misinformation that some industries are pushing goes too far.

  2. Wouldn’t it be a easier to redesign boat engines to run on higher ethanol blends, just as the auto industry is doing? I understand that there are unique challenges to watercraft fuels and engines, including the fact that ethanol is hydrophillic. However, ethanol is nothing new,and neither are ethanol blended fuels. Why not spend their time, money and energy finding solutions for their customers instead of wasting their efforts on blocking the inevitable?

  3. Wow, talk about a lot of myths and half-truth being stated in this article. Should boats and small engines avoid E15 or higher blends? Absolutely Is ethanol the biggest problem for boats and small engines? Absolutely Not
    Small engines, boats and vehicles built prior to 1996 for the most part can’t adapt the fuel mixture for higher blends and was never approved for the use of E15. What is interesting in all of this is what the American public is not being told.
    The biggest issue for boaters and small engines is the aromatics being slipped into our gasoline supply. Aromatics are a stronger solvent than ethanol and if you don’t believe me, go to a Lowes or Home Depot and see that they are selling either toluene or xylenes as a solvent in the paint section.

  4. It amazes me how money talks and facts don’t. The small engine folks and marine representatives should support this effort since it requires E15 to be 88 octane. This means that ethanol can only be added and that the oil industry isn’t given the opportunity to make a worse fuel.
    If Mercury Marine wants to be opposed to E15, should we not ask their engineers what is currently damaging their fuel lines. We have the pictures and if you do buy that toluene or xylene for the hardware store, try soaking plastic or fuel lines in that stuff.
    Gasoline standards are considered the ultimate authority for blending gasoline. We should then ask why this statement is being quietly slipped in.
    5.5.1 Variability in gasoline and gasoline-oxygenate blends composition, particularly aromatics content, may result in materials incompatibility problems. Some types of elastomers and plastics used to make gaskets and seals may swell with higher concentrations of aromatics in fuel and then shrink with very low concentrations of aromatics, which may result in a compromised ability to seal.

    If Chicago along with other cities wants cleaner air, they need to ask EPA why they are looking the other way when it comes to consumer fuels.

  5. – E15 is cheaper because it has less energy per gallon.
    – Even though corn producers like ethanol, there is a strong argument that the ethnology production is a net loss of energy
    – Most importantly for the average consumer, small engines do not run properly on E10 and would run even worse on E15. Automobiles have sophisticated fuel injection that adjust for the fact that ethanol blends have less energy, but small engines, and older engines of all sizes, have fixed settings. These engines generally stall at idle speed, and have very low power under load.