Ethanol invades traditional tanks

To save money and support neighboring farms, Scott Dubbelde began mixing gasoline and cheaper, ethanol-based fuel in his cars years ago, driving first to the gasoline pump, and then to the ethanol pump.

It has worked so well that Dubbelde, who manages a local grain elevator, mixes fuels for all three of his family cars, though only one was designed to handle ethanol-heavy blends.

The practice has caught the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency as a handful of filling stations install pumps that allow drivers to select different ethanol blends with the push of a button.

Auto manufacturers warn that ethanol can corrode fuel lines and damage hoses, seals and the fuel pump in cars not made to carry ethanol. That can lead to bad gas mileage and poor performance, and may even affect vehicle computers that warn of problems.

The EPA says it can damage emission control devices.

Yet with gas prices hitting a string of record highs this year, motorists are paying little heed, even at the risk of voiding their warranties.

“It works good, real good,” Dubbelde said of the blends he uses in a Toyota and a Buick, which he improved through a couple years of experimentation. “No ‘check engine' light comes on. I don't even think there's a difference in mileage.”

The local Cenex gas station installed special blender pumps after managers saw customers mixing their own fuel just like Dubbelde.

Motorists can fill up with E85, a fuel mixture with up to 85 percent ethanol, or blends varying from 20 percent to 50 percent ethanol. There is little physical difference, except that blending pumps have buttons offering increasing levels of ethanol rather than 87- or 89-octane gas.

The savings at the pump are real. While regular gas was $3.93 a gallon at Cenex recently, ethanol blends ranged from $3.23 to $3.81. That was before the 20-cent-per-gallon discount Cenex offered for ethanol blends 20 percent and up as part of a special promotion.

In some Midwestern states, E85 can be as much as a dollar cheaper per gallon than gasoline. A few dozen gas stations in at least four states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Kansas – have the new blender pumps. More stations are asking about them.

Ethanol advocates acknowledge that there is some misuse of the fuel.

“What an individual does is very difficult to control at the point of sale,” said Tim Gerlach, assistant executive director for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “I think any retailer will tell you that misfueling is not an uncommon occurrence.”

That concerns automakers, who say owners of conventional vehicles are putting their vehicle components and their warranties at risk.

The Alliance of Auto Manufacturers fears new blender pumps will confuse drivers, spokesman Charles Territo said.

“The best way to expand ethanol use is to expand the number of gas stations that offer E85 and not through the use of midlevel blends that could damage conventional vehicles,” Territo said.

The EPA said that using blends that contain more than 10 percent ethanol in conventional vehicles could actually increase emissions and therefore violates the Clean Air Act.

“We are aware of this potential misfueling, but cannot discuss specific investigations in process,” EPA spokeswoman Roxanne Smith said in a statement.

“The EPA is working with industry sectors and states to assure compliance.”