Future Problems from Ethanol

The essay "Ethanol Damage" noted that ethanol has caused shocking, costly damage to boat motors. The ethanol blend common throughout the country can leach the resin out of the fiberglass gas tanks of as many as 15,000 boats. This results in a black goo that coats the engine's innards and hardens as the motor cools.

Remember MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether)? This was one of the two oxygenates that EPA required to be added to gasoline, allegedly to make it cleaner burning in order to comply with the Clean Air Act. In practice, it was the only choice for much of the country outside the Midwest, the major corn-producing region, because the other approved oxygenate, ethanol, cannot be transported by pipeline to other sections of the country. Ethanol attracts water, and small amounts of water vapor, which are always present in the pipelines, alter the fuel blend as the ethanol breaks down.

But MTBE was found to pollute groundwater, resulting from leaky gas tanks at filling stations. They had always leaked a certain amount of gasoline, but this had not been a significant problem. Ethanol, however, was found to penetrate much further and faster in the ground than regular gasoline, and it did not break down as regular gasoline does. By 2001, MTBE was found to have polluted the groundwater in 49 states. California alone had identified 10,000 sites of polluted groundwater, with some sites having 1,000 times the EPA limit for this chemical. New York identified 1,500 polluted sites, and 3 million people were exposed on Long Island alone, which was found to have 100 polluted municipal wells; and those people had no alternative source of water. And people even in Alaska were found to have MTBE in their blood. (See this essay.)

Most shocking is that EPA knew about the problem ten years before passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act--which it favored--and made no attempt to warn Congress or the public. EPA quietly let the legislation pass—and then for 15 years did nothing to eliminate MTBE. Instead, it started requiring gas stations to replace their underground steel gas tanks with fiberglass ones.

Dr. Arthur Robinson is a former professor of chemistry at the University of California at San Diego and former president and research director of the Linus Pauling Institute. He is currently head of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and has written recently in his newsletter Access to Energy: “Presumably automobile owners have not yet noticed the epoxy resins in their engines, since the surface to volume ratio of service station tanks is much smaller, leading to a lower concentration of ethanol-dissolved epoxy resin in the fuel. What, however, will be the long-term consequences of gradually dissolving these government-mandated service station tanks?”

So far, so bad. The stage is set for the problem to get worse. Ethanol production is rapidly expanding far beyond any economic demand, due to incessant promotional propaganda and a plethora of taxpayer subsidies; and politicians are ever alert to buying more votes from corn growers and industry—which is also a heavy financial contributor to both major political parties. Now politicians have a new tactic for expanding ethanol production: legislating higher ethanol content in gasoline. Minnesota, I believe, is the first state to so, requiring a doubling of the ethanol content of gasoline by August 30, 2013. No doubt other states will follow, likely with earlier deadlines for compliance, as every state wants to be first in line for the next ethanol plant. It will be interesting to see if the dissolved epoxy resins become a problem in automobile engines when the ethanol content is increased, if not before.

For more on ethanol, see our "Ethanol Nonsense" and "Ethanol Damage".

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