Tuesday, December 5, 2023


State faces national hurdles in seeking increased ethanol use
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Governor Pawlenty says increasing ethanol use is one of his priorities this year. But even if the legislature does approve a new law, the state will need the cooperation of the federal government and the auto manufacturers. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Last week in his state of the state message Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said he wants more ethanol used in the state. A push in the state legislature to do that is only the first step in the process. The federal government could block the plan. And in the past carmakers have said using higher ethanol blends could void warranties on their vehicles. Currently nearly all gas sold in the state contains 10% ethanol. A bill in the legislature could boost that figure to 20%.

Worthington, Minn. — Minnesota drivers have been burning the 10 percent mix for almost eight years. It's the only state in the nation requiring use of the corn based fuel. State Senator Dallas Sams says increasing the use of ethanol is a good thing.

"Certainly it's been an economic boom to Minnesota," says Sams. "For the corn industry, for farmers outstate and certainly addressed a lot of the concerns for pollution in the metropolitan area."

The proposed legislation takes a two prong approach to more ethanol, voluntary or mandatory. The target is to have ethanol account for 20 percent or more of fuel sales. The voluntary path depends on drivers choosing to sharply increase their ethanol use. 'Flexible fuel' vehicles can burn either regular gas or as much as 85 percent ethanol. Among the flex vehicles are certain models of the Chevy Silverado, Ford Taurus and Dodge Ram.

If enough owners of flex cars and trucks buy the 85 percent blend, ethanol should reach 20 percent or more of total gasoline sales by 2010. That would fulfill the voluntary approach in the legislation.

If the voluntary goal fails, the mandatory side takes effect. Then, starting in 2012, today's 10 percent blend would be history and all Minnesota gas would contain at least 20 percent ethanol. Ethanol consultant David Morris says if the state takes the mandatory path, there are obstacles.

"To get to 20 percent one needs permission, really, from the federal government," says Morris.

Morris is Vice-President of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, based in Minneapolis and Washington D.C. He's been an ethanol consultant to four presidential administrations. Morris says it can take a long time to get federal permission.

"The oil industry will probably be opposed, probably strongly opposed, and so will the automobile industry," says Morris. "So, it's an outside shot really about whether if that could happen within the time frame that the governor wants it to happen."

Car makers also have a role. Right now, all automobile warranties approve using 10 percent ethanol. Morris says getting manufacturers to accept 20 percent will be difficult. He bases that on what happened in the 1970's and 80's after the federal government approved the 10 percent mix.

"The automobile companies often discouraged people from buying ethanol blends and several of them said you would void your warranty," says Morris. "So it wasn't until the late 1980's that automobile companies actually said that it was okay to use ethanol blends or even encouraged it."

Car makers were concerned about ethanol's effect on engine fuel systems; the gaskets, hoses and floats. Those same concerns still exist with blends above 10 percent ethanol.

Morris says it may be possible to use governmental or public pressure to get car companies to accept higher ethanol blends for all their vehicles.

"You know it certainly would be embarrassing for automobile companies to say no to ethanol when it's clear from all scientific evidence that there's no problem with 20 percent."

Some Minnesota residents have experimented with ethanol. Roger Bechel of Eagle Lake drives cars which are approved for the 10 percent blend. But he uses much higher mixes, as much as 70 percent ethanol. He gets the blend he wants by alternating between the 10 percent ethanol and 85 percent ethanol pumps at his local gas station. He says he's never had a mechanical problem caused by ethanol.

"All I done was pull up to the gas pumps, put my blend in that I figure I need for the season of the year and drive away," says Bechel. "Just as simple as that."

That sort of enthusiasm is rare. State Senator Dallas Sams says even people who can, often don't use the high ethanol blends. He says flexible fuel vehicles owners often don't know they can use 85 percent ethanol. He hopes the current legislation will raise public awareness.

"We need to push it and see where we can go," says Sams. "If we don't do this it's not going to happen."

As a first step in the process, Sams predicts the ethanol bill will pass this year's legislature. Representatives of the car and oil industries have already raised objections.