The television advertisements we saw a few years ago made it look so promising: a clean, green, seemingly food-grade motor fuel made from American corn. We were treated to images of corn-fed children in pretty yellow T-shirts, patriotism by the truckload and heaps of plump, plentiful corn on the cob. This harmless substance, brought to you by your friendly family farm, would fuel vehicles and wean us off the nasty black oil — costly, toxic and rife with dangerous foreign entanglements.
Of course, that all turned out to be marketing strategy. Ethanol is an industrial solvent (basically alcohol) made primarily from corn — although not quite that golden, heavily-buttered variety we saw in those ads. Mixed with gasoline, ethanol has proven a disappointment to many consumers.
Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, has been heading up an effort in the Maine Legislature to revisit ethanol and to encourage fuel suppliers to make a non-ethanol product available to Maine consumers. Timberlake hopes that the bill he is sponsoring, LD 115, “An Act To Join in a Prohibition on Motor Fuel Containing Corn-based Ethanol, might prove to be a step toward getting this discussion back on the table with major fuel suppliers, particularly Irving Oil in New England.
Timberlake said he knows Maine isn’t going to ban ethanol entirely. Rather, the hope is to encourage fuel suppliers to recognize customer needs.
The bill’s title doesn’t mean that all who support it are against the idea of a renewable fuel source or biofuel. The ethanol issue is complex and includes debates about up-front cost, indirect costs reflected in food prices, fuel efficiency, environmental concerns, land use and agricultural ethics, and consumer awareness. Yet many Mainers are also concerned that the available fuel product is not good for some of our machinery.
The assumption on the part of the fuel suppliers seems to be that gasoline users fall into only one category: people with relatively new cars who use them frequently (presumably for the daily commute), tank up regularly at their convenient service station, burn through the fuel quickly and operate no other engines. Of course, that leaves out small engines and the contractors, maintenance and forestry professionals who rely on such equipment.
It leaves out marine applications such as outboard motors. It leaves out recreational motor sports such as snow machines. It leaves out aviation and antique cars, as well as emergency responders who need that outboard, fire pump or chainsaw to run perfectly after perhaps sitting idle for a month or two. And it definitely leaves out Maine’s islanders, most of whom have no access to a “convenient service station” and who have no choice but to store gasoline for extended periods of time.
Gas including ethanol cannot be easily stored because it attracts water, separates and is quickly rendered useless. As a solvent it can damage some non-metallic components in equipment not built specifically to handle this chemical. Many small engine manufacturers do not recommend ethanol. Some find it disturbing that a large portion of American agricultural land is being used to grow motor fuel, and there are numerous reputable arguments that growing corn in fact costs more in fuel than it produces. Corn is an expensive crop to raise.
According to University of California Berkeley physics professor Richard A. Muller, “We must not lump all biofuels into the same category. Some are good, and some are not so good. Corn ethanol is arguably the worst.”
The percentage of ethanol in our gasoline (now usually 10 percent) is slated to increase, according to federal renewable fuel standards. At the Maine Legislature’s public hearing on LD 115 on March 20, Pat Moody, the manager of AAA Northern New England, testified that a 15-percent ethanol motor fuel (referred to as E15) in some cases “did not comply with fuel requirements in (automobile) owners’ manuals and may void warranty coverage.”
AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet testified in February before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Environment, asserting that “regulators and industry should suspend the sale of E15 gasoline until motorists are better protected.”
LD115 and three other bills concerning ethanol in motor fuel are under consideration this legislative session. Many Mainers hope that gasoline formulated without corn ethanol will be made available to consumers eventually.
Eva Murray is a year-round resident of Matinicus Island where she serves as an emergency medical technician, local emergency management director, solid waste and recycling coordinator and school board member.