COLUMBIA — In May, Missouri became the 13th state to legalize E15, a blend of fuel that contains at least 85 percent gasoline and up to 15 percent ethanol.
Approved retailers can currently sell E15, but the fuel is expected to be more visible after Sept. 15, when summer blends are phased out, according to the Missouri Corn Growers Association.
The ethanol blend is not likely to be widely available, however. In the 12 other states where it is permitted, only 78 stations now offer it. The most are in Iowa with 28; Wisconsin has 12, Kansas, North Dakota and Minnesota have seven, Illinois and Nebraska have six, and the remaining five have just one station per state.
Stations must apply to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval to sell the blend and meet a set of requirements covering underground storage tanks, pumps, hoses and labels. The EPA also looks for misfueling mitigation measures, which would prevent car owners from using E15 in nonapproved vehicles.
So far, the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association has dissuaded its members from seeking EPA approval until safety and liability matters are settled.
Proponents say the fuel provides a cheaper, cleaner-burning alternative to pure gasoline and helps to support national and local economies.
Opponents, on the other hand, say the fuel can cause significant engine damage and may even void vehicle warranties.
The issues remain unclear on both sides of the argument. A decision about whether or not to fill up your car with E15 depends on whom you ask and what you take away from the conversation.
Supporters of E15, such as the Missouri Corn Growers Association, have called the fuel a "cleaner-burning, cost-saving option over conventional gasoline," according to a May news release.
But, several studies have concluded that ethanol may not be as clean burning as previously thought.
A research team from Northwestern University discovered that ozone levels dropped 20 percent in Sao Paulo after high prices forced local residents to switch from ethanol to gasoline. The report was published in April in the Nature Geoscience journal.
The share of bi-fuel vehicles, those that use both gasoline and natural gas, burning gasoline in Sao Paulo rose from 14 percent to 76 percent, allowing the researchers to monitor a real-world shift in behavior.
"Brazil is the second-largest producer and consumer of ethanol in the world after the United States," according to a 2013 report by the Department of Energy.
A 2008 study led by Stanford University researchers also found that "vehicles running on ethanol will generate higher concentrations of ozone than those using gasoline."
Ozone occurs throughout the Earth's atmosphere. Upper-level, or stratospheric ozone, forms naturally and protects us from harmful UV radiation, according to the EPA.
But ground-level, or tropospheric ozone, is created by chemical reactions, which are fueled by vehicle emissions and other pollutants, according to the EPA.
Ground-level ozone causes respiratory problems, especially in children, older adults and those with lung diseases. It also contributes to smog and causes damage to trees and vegetation, according to the EPA.
As for cost, E15 tends to be slightly cheaper than conventional gasoline, but the advantage may be erased by fuel economy.
The Zarco 66 "Oasis" in Lawrence, Kan., was the first gas station in the country to offer E15 and is currently one of the closest retailers to Columbia.
As of July 10, E15 at Zarco 66 was 2 cents cheaper per gallon than regular 87-octane gasoline.
While E15 can be slightly less expensive, vehicles typically get 4 to 5 percent fewer miles per gallon than with pure gasoline, according to the Department of Energy.
Shane Kinne, director of public policy for the Missouri Corn Growers Association, countered by saying "2 percent less gas mileage is the maximum."
"Studies have shown that it all depends on the vehicles," he said.
One upside of ethanol, however, is the injection of revenue into national and local economies.
In 2013, the United States produced approximately 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol, with 98 percent derived from corn, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
This created nearly 400,000 direct and indirect jobs and generated billions of dollars in gross domestic product, household income and tax revenue, according to the association.
Missouri has benefited as well. In 2011, the state's ethanol industry produced more than 250 million gallons, generated $1.1 billion and sustained more than 1,500 jobs, according to a report by MU Extension's Commercial Agriculture Program.
Despite these economic advantages, though, some critics remain wary of E15 and increased volumes of ethanol in the transportation fuel supply.
In February 2013, an article in Popular Mechanics warned that ethanol can corrode rubber and metal and can damage vital vehicle components, such as fuel lines, injectors, seals, gaskets, valve seats, older carburetors and in-tank pumps and filters. When ethanol bonds with any moisture in the tank, the two can separate.
"If your vehicle sits for long periods between use, the moisture settles to the bottom of the tank and can potentially clog in-tank pumps and filters," the article stated.
Kinne said, however, "there hasn't been a single case of damage due to E15."
Another major debate revolves around which vehicles can safely use E15, even if they are approved by the EPA for the ethanol blend.
The EPA has approved E15 for use in model year 2001 and newer cars, light-duty trucks, SUVs and flex-fuel vehicles, which are designed to run on pure gasoline or a blend of fuel containing up to 85 percent ethanol.
However, AAA has argued that "More than 90 percent of the vehicles on the road today are not approved by manufacturers to use E15, including most 2001-2013 models. E15 is only approved for use by automakers in flex-fuel engines, 2001 and newer Porches, and selected 2012 and newer vehicles."
In addition, BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen will not cover E15-related warranty claims, according to AAA.
GM, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo may also void warranties for unauthorized use of E15, according to AAA.
But Missouri Corn Growers Association CEO Gary Marshall has recently fired back at AAA for "misrepresenting the benefits of E15."
"Approximately 80 percent of the vehicles on the road today are 2001 or newer and approved by the EPA to use the ethanol blend," Marshall wrote in a letter to AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet.
Use of E15, Marshall added, "does not necessarily void a vehicle warranty."
Still, others remain unconvinced.
"There is no consensus among auto manufacturers and the Environmental Protection Agency about which cars can safely use E15," said Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.
"My advice," he said, "is to not sell or use E15 because there are far too many unresolved issues."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.