OPINION: Pipe dope and higher ethanol blends

By Cassie Mullen, director of market development at the Renewable Fuels Association | December 04, 2019

The compatibility of pipe dope associated with underground storage tank systems for blends of ethanol above 10 percent has been a subject of controversy for many years and has been repeatedly misrepresented by those hoping to suppress market adoption of additional blends. Ethanol opponents shamelessly make absurd claims of absolute incompatibility and financial ruin for those who consider adding higher blends like E15 to their offering. They recklessly state that 98 percent of the market cannot legally adopt E15 because of the existing pipe dope formula and that those who choose to proceed will face economic peril.

This is nonsense.   

Allow me to shed some long-overdue light and truth. Yes, it is true that operators must prove compatibility in their underground storage tank systems for whatever substance they store. Per the 2015 EPA UST regulations, tank owners intending to sell ethanol and gasoline blends containing greater than 10 percent-by-volume ethanol must first demonstrate the ethanol and gasoline blends’ compatibility with specific UST system components—which includes the tank, piping, containment sumps, pumping equipment, release detection equipment, spill prevention equipment, and overfill prevention equipment.

Pipe dope and sealants are not included in that list; however, some implementing agencies may require additional demonstrations or call for different requirements, and some financial assurance mechanisms may require additional documentation. Interestingly, neither EPA’s direct rule nor supporting guidance references whether pipe dope or thread sealant is included in the components for which owners must provide proof of compatibility. According to guidance issued by EPA, no affirmative compatibility determination is required for pipe dope.

However, the original 1988 UST regulations require all UST system components to be compatible with the product stored, including pipe dope. As a result, according to EPA regulations, a tank owner is not required to affirmatively demonstrate pipe dope compatibility.  Yet, once a higher blend ethanol and gasoline product like E15 is entered into the system, the pipe dope must nevertheless be compatible with the product stored.

Because of the somewhat schizophrenic language of the rule, rivals of the ethanol market opted to run with it and started a fear-and-smear campaign to dissuade adoption. Sadly, their strategy has been effective to a degree. Today, we hope we can change the narrative.

As market adoption of E15 steadily rises, retailers are often called to prove system compatibility. In the past this has been a difficult endeavor. However, today, thanks to organizations like the Petroleum Equipment Institute (PEI), finding backup data for proof of compatibility has become much simpler. At the PEI website, www.pei.org, retailers can find dozens of published manufacturer statements that give technical guidance on when their equipment was UL certified. This information also includes what specific products and blends are covered under the listed certification. Additionally, UL has developed a user-friendly compatibility tool to assist manufacturers and fueling stations to meet EPA, state and other code fuel compatibility requirements. This can be accessed via the UL Product iQ Database at www.ocd.ulprospector.com

Yet with all this, pipe dope has kept people guessing, until now. While there is a large list of manufacturers that comprise the 60-plus components in a fuel system, when it comes to pipe dope there is one manufacturer that has the market almost completely cornered. Federal Process Corp., the manufacturer of Gasoila, has reportedly more than a 90-percent market share and has remained the industry go-to product for decades. In a recent discussion with RFA, Federal Process stated unequivocally that not only is their standard blue-formula pipe dope compatible with fuels up to 20 percent ethanol, it has been for far longer than this so-called concern has been around.  Additionally, the only other potential manufacturer, Rectorseal, has also stated their standard formula is compatible for 15 percent ethanol.

Often, opponents further their disputable fodder with the notion that the location of pipe dope as it pertains to fuel systems is difficult and costly to reach. In short, this is a deceptive claim with no rational basis. From a technical aspect, accessing the areas is relatively simple; all points are attainable visibly or via a manway apart from one. The single area in question is easily reachable with a small 12-inch diameter concrete cut that would take very little time or effort. Even with all that, if a retailer decided he wanted to address the pipe dope end-to-end and replace 100 percent of it, this is neither a lengthy nor costly effort. 

In the end, it is important for fuel retailers to understand that, while pipe dope does need to be compatible with the fuel that is being stored within the storage system, standard pipe dope is —and has been—compatible for blends of ethanol up to and beyond 15 percent for decades.