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Minnesota State University, Mankato
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Ethanol Q-A: How will E20 affect your car, the environment?

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has signed into law a bill that requires 20 percent ethanol in gasoline, and MSU ethanol expert Bruce Jones answers questions about the issue.

2006-04-09
By Robert Franklin, Star Tribune staff writer [published in the Star Tribune, Minneapolis, 4/29/2005]

Both houses of the Legislature have passed bills that could require 20 percent ethanol content -- double the current requirement -- in gasoline sold in Minnesota by 2013. A conference committee is to reconcile differences between Senate and House bills.

Here are some questions and answers raised by the issue:

Will this affect my car's performance?

The change would result in a 3.5 percent loss in engine energy, said Bruce Jones, professor and director of the Minnesota Center for Automotive Research at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Flint Hills Resources, operator of a Rosemount refinery, told the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee that it could be in the range of 6 to 10 percent, said Craig Clark, committee administrator.

Jones said a yearlong test of 16 unmodified vehicles running on 30 percent ethanol showed no driveability problems and no fuel system component failures.

Will fuel prices drop?

Yes, more than enough to offset any energy loss, Clark said. He pointed to American Lung Association surveys in March that showed disparities as great as $1.499 for E85 fuel (85 percent ethanol) to $2.099 for unleaded regular gasoline.

What about small engines?

An Australian government study found a "significant" loss of power in E20, but only in engines operated at well above their rated speed. The House bill was amended to seek an opinion from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on whether E20 will create a hazard for motorcycles, outboard motors, snowmobiles and other machines with small engines.

Will E20 void my car warranty?

That's a private contract, but E20 must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before it is required, and Clark said he thinks manufacturers would be hard-pressed to withhold warranties in such a case.

Will non-ethanol gasoline still be available?

Yes, for cars more than 20 years old.

What's the economic effect?

Fourteen Minnesota ethanol plants produced 400 million gallons last year, supporting 5,300 jobs and generating $1.35 billion in economic activity, Clark said. Obviously, that would increase, and more plants are planned. Corn prices are 10 cents a bushel higher in areas with an ethanol plant, he said.

What about environmental effects?

Cars burning E20 should show small reductions in carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and greenhouse emissions, slight increases in nitrous oxides and formaldehydes, Clark said. However, Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, argued that "there's significant evidence" that ethanol doesn't reduce carbon monoxide but produces carcinogens and smog. Clark said ethanol produces 67 percent more energy than it takes to produce, while gasoline produces 20 percent less than production energy. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, argued that a trend toward coal-burning ethanol plants would harm the environment.

Other arguments?

E20 will reduce dependence on foreign oil and promote rural development, say proponents such as Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, the bill's chief House sponsor. But it's a subsidized boondoggle, said Paymar. "The industry can stand on its own." A state subsidy, which started at 20 cents a gallon, has been reduced to 13 cents and will be phased out in time, Clark said.

Different versions of the bill were passed 91-43 Wednesday by the House and 54-12 earlier by the Senate. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made the bill a priority.

Robert Franklin is at rfranklin@startribune.com.

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