Increasing ethanol in gas overlooks problems

John Gilbert

The KIA EV9 was plugged in for a recharge of its battery pack, with no concerns about gasoline and ethanol ever again. Photo by John Gilbert.

In and around Duluth, we’re a lot like everybody else in the U.S. when we try to figure out the roulette game that passes for the fluctuation of gasoline prices at various gas stations. Suddenly, as you drive down London Road and realize you’ve let your fuel gauge dip down to near one-quarter. Suddenly your wife — if she’s like mine — will let out a yelp: “Look! The gas price has dropped to $3.19!” T

hat, we both realized, represents a 30 center per gallon drop from the previous day. And maybe the next day, we will notice the price has gone back up to $3.49 a gallon — recovering that 30-cent decrease in a flash.

We have watched the price for a gallon of regular fluctuate from $3.15 to $3.99 in less than a week’s time, and there were a couple of brief times when it went over $4 per gallon. We’ve heard all the excuses for it, too. There is a refinery across the harbor in Superior, Wisconsin, and occasionally they’ll tell us the prices went up in the fall because they were blending in a cold-weather additive, which makes sense until they tell us, the following spring, that the prices has fluctuated because they had to adjust the mixture and remove the winter additive.  We are not amused at the concept that your gas costs more with a winter additive, until it also costs more when they remove the winter additive!

I listen to various radio shows and read everything about cars and driving that I can get  my hands on, and it was further of interest when one popular radio show’s host raved about finding the cheapest gas he’s seen all winter — $2.99 a gallon — in Cloquet, which is about 35 miles south on Interstate 35 from Duluth. He said he drove around that Cloquet area and several stations had gas that cheap. I wanted to call and tell him that the Cloquet area stations are famous for having the cheapest gas in the region, but it is because while most stations adhere to the E-10 rule of putting a maximum of 10 percent ethanol into their gasoline, they can lower the price and still make a buck or two.

This past week, I read an Associated Press story on a news outlet, which had a loud headline congratulating Minnesota for joining with seven other Midwestern states and a couple of heavy-duty corn farmer associations to vote in favor of allowing fuel companies to raise the ethanol level from its current 10 percent to 15 percent, which is called E15.

Amid all sorts of praise for the move, which takes effect in 2025, our governor, Tim Walz, joined with the governors of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Ohio, Nebraska and Missouri in a chorus of self-congratulations at convincing the EPA to go along with the move. Gas had been limited to 10 percent ethanol in warmer months because of concerns that the smog problem could be worsened by increasing ethanol.

On its own, ethanol refined from corn grown specifically for that purpose produces a high-octane concoction that produces higher horsepower and burns cleaner, while costing less. The corn-growing industry has gone on a runaway profit-making trip because nearly 40 percent of the corn grown in our Midwestern states goes toward making ethanol. It is no good for turning into food or even animal feed.

Gov Walz said the move by the EPA to allow 15 percent ethanol means “lower emissions and lower-cost choices for drivers,” and added that he’s “grateful to the Biden administration to share the commitment to increasing consumer access to our nation’s homegrown biofuels.”

However, while the Growth Energy trade association will equate to saving 15 cents per gallon at the pump, all of these political agencies and outfits with vested interest in growing more corn have conveniently neglected to mention the flip side of the whole ethanol thing.

When ethanol was first brought out as a fuel additive, my business of road-testing cars spotted some immediate problems, such as sputtering when you stepped on the gas, and “oiseling” when you shut it off — after-running. Turns out, mechanics found that the fuel lines and valvetrains were being damaged by the hotter-burning ethanol.

That’s why, back about 25 years ago, some manufacturers built “Flex-Fuel” engines with hardened metal used in valves and other driveline parts. That allowed those engines to run the ethanol mix without problems, or so they said.

A lot of time has passed since then, making me curious all over again. So I contacted Jeff Hofslund, who runs Foreign Affairs auto shop on 9th Street and 7th Avenue East in Duluth. I asked him if he had read the latest news, and what he thought of it.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s strictly political,” Hofslund said. “It may be OK if your car is new enough to be controlled by computers that can alter and adjust how your engine runs based on your fuel. But I don’t like it. When it first came out, I used E10 it in my boat and it caused a lot of problems. It’s corrosive and eats fuel lines, and causes problems with fuel injectors and with carburetors, because of the differences in the BTUs it can generate by being hotter-running.”

The topic came up while I was test driving a KIA EV9 GT-Line electric vehicle, land we had an adventure finding a high-power (Level 3) charging station that was operational in the Duluth area, so we finally had to sett on a couple of Level 2 charging sites, which take about three times as long to recharge your EV.

People who are afraid of EVs or overly concerned about recharging them, commonly speak up publicly about how worthless EVs are for our society. That’s true in several aspects, but just about then I had a conversation with my younger son, Jeff, who lives in Bellingham, Washington. He informed me that gas is more than $4 a gallon out there, and it’s even higher in California. In fact, gas is costlier in almost every state than in Minnesota, and we seem helpless to do anything about it.

If the EV-haters get their way, our manufacturers will be slower to develop battery packs and increased number of chargers. Plus, if we can’t find EVs as alternatives, how long do we think it will take before fuel companies just arbitrarily increase the price of gasoline to $5 per gallon in Minnesota?