Holy Smoke! A Road Worrier column on the risk of hurting our cars with ethanol drew bushels of rebuttals from corn country, and from local ethanol admirers. (See the column with online comments, and a letter from an ethanol industry rep.)
I wrote the column simply to warn drivers of non-flex-fuel cars about the risk of putting E85 fuel (85 percent ethanol) in their tanks by mistake. Be careful!
But it was read differently by ethanol boosters. Here's one of a few dozen responses, from Bob Rice:
I can’t believe anyone at this period in time would produce such a negative opinion piece regarding bio-fuels. While ethanol from corn may have some efficiency issues vs. ethanol from other bio-mass sources it is still in fact represents a physical net gain in available BTU’s and a smaller overall carbon foot print. ... I really think the News and Observer owes its reader an apology for such an inaccurate and misleading headline.
Why the fuss? This little issue – avoiding accidental damage to cars – should have nothing to do with the pros and cons of ethanol.
Nothing to do with energy independence, carbon footprints and clean air, Big Oil and Arab oil, fossil fuels vs. renewable fuels, food vs. fuel, subsidies vs. free markets.
I got an angry e-mail about “our addiction to dirty, imported oil” from the mother of a Marine who died in Iraq. But, really, this little issue has nothing to do with war, either.
E85 is 85 percent ethanol. There are only 7 million “flex fuel” cars on the road that can handle the stuff. There are 245 million cars that can’t.
Carmakers say we risk voiding our warranties if we fill up non-flex-fuel cars with more than 10 percent ethanol. That risk, alone, should get our attention.
Why is a warning necessary? Because until recently it was difficult, and nearly impossible, for drivers of gas cars to make this kind of mistake at a North Carolina gas station. Most (not all) diesel fuel pumps have fat nozzles that won’t fit in the skinny openings to car gas tanks, so diesel misfueling is rare.
Now we’re starting to see E-85 pumps alongside regular gas pumps, with skinny gas nozzles. They are decorated with friendly images of sunshine, and they sport a pump price as much as 35 cents lower than the cost of regular gas.
If we’re not careful, if we don’t pay careful attention to the mildly worded advisory language (no mention of ‘warning’ or ‘damage’ etc.), we can buy ourselves a tankful of trouble.
Several ethanol fuel users from Corn Belt states wrote to suggest that only careless or stupid people would make the E-85 mistake. Just look at that yellow pump nozzle as one of several clues, they said.
But not all E85 pumps are yellow. At a station in Benson, yellow is reserved for diesel and E85 is blue. At a state government motor pool pump in West Raleigh, the E85 nozzle is green.
That was a surprise to Jim Rice of Liberal, Kansas:
I must say I have never seen ethanol (E85) use anything other than a yellow handle. Way out here in the midwest all green handles are diesel pumps, balck are gasoline and the yellow is E85. I just figured those colors were standard issue, but it appears not.
Sorry for my misunderstanding. I hope we can both work tagather to promote all alcohol fuel to make America a better place with less dependance on foreign oil.
The EPA has proposed new warning labels that would say E85 is “prohibited” for non-flex cars, and that it can damage them. I don’t see why anybody would oppose this helpful information.
But Conrad Chin of Cary received a chilly reply when he complained about damage to his 1999 Honda, after he tanked up by mistake with E85 at a station on U.S. 64 in Apex. Chin forwarded this e-mail from Craig Stephenson, vice president of Cary Oil Co.:
I regret that you had an unfortunate experience with the E-85 dispenser at our site. We were careful to label the dispenser cabinet, the price sign, the push-to-start button on the dispenser, and the dispenser nozzle with “E-85 ethanol” and “for Flex Fuel Vehicles Only” notifications to advise customers of the product available at that dispenser.
Because it appears that your experience was one of accidently misfueling rather than a defect in our E-85 product I regret that we will be unable to reimburse you for expenses related to car repair.
We will, however, reimburse you for the E-85 fuel that was purchased by you by accident as well as provide you with a $50 Shell gift card for use at any this or any Shell location. If you will provide us a copy of your receipt or other evidence of your E-85 purchase at that site along with a mailing address we will be glad to forward the fuel reimbursement and the Shell gift card to you.
Meanwhile, the ethanol industry warns fuel retailers that they must prevent customers from making the E85 mistake. According to guidelines published by the Renewable Fuels Assocation:
Under the Clean Air Act and EPA guidance it is illegal for the retailer to allow E85 to be dispensed into a non-FFV. Fines can be levied on the retailer or customer and can be as high as $10,000 per offense. Even though the facility may be “self-serve,” the retailer is considered responsible and can be fined for misfueling events.
Like I said: Be careful.