The downside of ethanol
WHILE THERE are no longer any federal laws mandating the blending of ethanol into gasoline, many states have passed laws that require it. Nationally, 40 percent of all gasoline sold for use in cars is blended with ethanol. But in Hawaii, 99 percent of all gasoline is blended with ethanol; the only unblended gas is on Lanai and Molokai.
Thousands of Hawaii residents have suffered costly mechanical failures as a result of the ethanol mandate. If you own a boat, a small airplane, a classic car, a lawnmower, a chainsaw, an emergency generator ... in short, if you own anything with a gasoline-powered engine, you might have had it fail or stop running.
Why should something as seemingly innocuous as a tiny amount of ethanol in a gallon of gasoline cause so many problems?
The first problem is that ethanol is a solvent. It degrades fiberglass fuel tanks common in marine and small airplane applications by dissolving the fiberglass resins and creating a sludge that clogs fuel filters and leaves a thick coating on the valves that can ruin engines. The Federal Aviation Administration forbids small airplanes from using ethanol-blended fuel because of these problems.
The second problem is that ethanol attracts moisture from the air. When an engine sits unused, or is not tightly sealed against atmospheric moisture, such as in the case of marine and aviation engines, over time the increased ratio of water in the blended fuel hits a critical point and the mixture breaks down into separate layers of gasoline, ethanol and water. When the pure ethanol or water layer is injected into the engine, serious damage can occur. This rarely happens with passenger cars, since most are driven daily and have tightly sealed fuel systems that keep out moist air.
Why didn't anyone anticipate these problems?
This situation is the result of a well-intentioned law that suffers from unintended consequences. Act 257 was passed in 1997, and required the director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to adopt rules to implement the law that gasoline sold in Hawaii contain 10 percent ethanol by volume. This law was intended to bail out Hawaii's sugar producers by creating a more profitable market for sugar, with consumers paying the subsidy via compulsory purchases of ethanol refined from sugar cane. The other benefit would be a lowered dependence on fossil fuels. By April 2006, 99 percent of Hawaii's gas supply contained ethanol.
Several things went wrong. First, the law took effect despite the lack of ethanol plants in Hawaii, causing refiners to import pricey ethanol. Second, the gasoline refiners and distributors decided to make 99 percent of their gasoline into the E10 ethanol blend (with the 1 percent that was pure gasoline going to Molokai and Lanai), even though the DBEDT rules allowed them to sell 15 percent of gasoline ethanol free.
The Senate Energy and Environment Committee will vote Tuesday on House Bill 791 HD1. This is the only bill still alive that can address this critical problem affecting so many people. Passing it is a matter of public safety.
Colleen Meyer, a Republican, represents the 47th District (Laie-Kahaluu).