DOE, ethanol groups: Big Oil's E15 testing seriously flawed

By Kris Bevill | May 16, 2012

Ethanol industry groups and U.S. DOE officials responded immediately to a research report released May 16 by auto and petroleum groups attempting to highlight potential engine issues related to E15 use, calling the report inaccurate and “meaningless.”

The testing was conducted on behalf of the Coordinating Research Council, a non-profit organization funded by automobile and oil companies. Tests took place over the course of two years and included 28 engines representing eight various light-duty vehicle types from model year 2001 through 2009.  The test results claim to prove that E15 could damage valves and valve seals in some 2001-2009 vehicle models, leading to loss of engine power and engine damage, as well as decreased fuel efficiency and increased vehicle emissions.

During a conference call with reporters to announce the test results, American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard said the CRC testing results validate API’s previously voiced concern that the U.S. EPA’s partial approval of E15 was premature and potentially dangerous. According to Gerard and others on the call, including Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers,  the extensive E15 testing conducted by the U.S. DOE prior to the EPA’s approval of the fuel focused only on catalysts and did not test engine durability, which was the focus of the CRC tests. Therefore, the CRC test results are valuable and should be taken into consideration, according to the petroleum and auto groups.

But in a blog posted to the DOE’s website on May 16, Patrick Davis, DOE Vehicle Technologies Program Manager, asserted that the DOE study did include an inspection of engine components, such as valves, and found no problems. In addition, he cited several flaws in the CRC tests, which he said resulted in a “significantly flawed” study. “We believe the choice of test engines, test cycle, limited fuel selection, and failure criteria of the CRC program resulted in unreliable and incomplete data, which severely limits the utility of the study,” Davis said in the blog.

As part of the CRC study, engines were tested first with E20. If problems were detected with that blend, engines were subjected to E15 tests. If issues were detected using E15, the engines were then tested with E0. Davis pointed out that this testing method failed to establish a control group, a necessity when attempting to determine statistical significance for any results, he said. Further, he noted that the CRC testing included several engines previously known to have durability issues, including one engine that had already been recalled due to valve problems when being operated on E0 as well as E10. “It is no surprise that an engine having problems with traditional fuels might also ‘fail’ with E15 or E20 ethanol-blended fuels—especially using a failure criterion chosen to demonstrate sensitivity to ethanol and operated on a cycle designed to stress the valves,” he said.

The DOE’s testing included 86 vehicles as compared to the CRC’s 28 engines. While the CRC testing was an aggressive approach designed to stress the drive train, the DOE’s testing more closely resembled normal driving, according to Davis. The CRC tested each vehicle for 500 hours, equating to about 100,000 miles per vehicle. The DOE’s testing operated vehicles for up 120,000 miles each.

Ethanol industry leaders were also quick to question the testing methods used in the CRC study. “After 6 million miles and years of testing, the Department of Energy found no problems with the use of E15 in vehicles made since model year 2001,” Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen said in a statement. “By funding research using questionable testing protocols and illegal fuels, the results of this study are meaningless and only serve to muddy the waters and shun the overwhelming desire of 75 percent of Americans for greater choice at the pump.”

Ron Lamberty, senior vice president at the American Coalition for Ethanol, asserted that the test was designed to produce the petroleum and auto industry’s desired results. “The real problem here is that people may read about this project and think that it actually has some connection to the real world,” he said. “How Big Oil can trot out this small, slanted, flawed study as something we should take seriously, while calling EPA’s two and half years of E15 testing a ‘rush to judgment’ is beyond me. All this latest hit piece proves is that ethanol’s opponents are becoming more desperate to keep ethanol – which could help consumers save more at the pump – completely out of the marketplace.”

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, the group responsible for filing the initial E15 waiver request in 2009, pointed out that, in addition to the thorough testing conducted by the DOE and EPA, E15 has already been used extensively in NASCAR vehicles under extreme engine conditions with no problems. The resistance from petroleum groups to accept ethanol also threatens the opportunity for consumers to have more choice in the fuels market, he said. “While the large oil companies continue to espouse their support of a free market, they have put roadblocks up at every opportunity to prevent the free choice they claim to champion so dearly,” he said.