Common Tread

Why is there ethanol in my gas?

Jul 29, 2015

Ethanol is kind of a dirty word in motorcycle circles. You may have heard your mechanic criticize it. The American Motorcyclist Association keeps warning us about it. And I've promised our own Lemmy I'll unleash him tomorrow so he can go off on his own rant about it.

So what's it all about? By all means, you'll want to read Lemmy's rant (he may look like a big, unkempt teddy bear in those videos, but he can put on a nasty scowl when provoked). You'll probably learn some wrenching stuff, as well as be entertained. But first, let's look at the basics of ethanol.

Just about all the gas you buy today is really 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol (E10) as mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency. This standard has been in place for a decade and has gained support from Congress with the backing of both Presidents Bush and Obama.

Now, the federal government wants even more ethanol used in the nation's fuel supply. There is wide support for introducing gasoline using up to 15 percent ethanol (E15) using "blender pumps." Most politicians from both major political parties support the idea.

The trouble is that no motorcycles are certified by the EPA to run on E15 (nor are cars made before 2001). Using E15 in your motorcycle could damage the engine and void your warranty. These warnings from Honda are just one example.

If E15 is approved, it could squeeze out E10, just as E10 has all but eliminated availability of E0 (also known as gasoline). Plus, those blender pumps mix ethanol and gasoline on site. If the person before you buys a tankful of E15 and you come along to fill up with E10, you're going to get about a third of a gallon of E15 that's still in the hose and mechanism. If you're filling a 20-gallon tank on your pre-2001 pickup truck, that little extra ethanol probably isn't going to be significant. If you're filling the peanut tank on your Sportster? Now we're talking a different situation.

At one point, the EPA even proposed that drivers be forced to buy a minimum of four gallons to avoid this problem. That would also present difficulties for riders of a lot of small-tank cruisers, but at least that proposal died.

Why is there ethanol in my gas, anyway?

First I'll give you the official answer, then I'll get into the grittier details.

Adding ethanol extends the oil supply. The first point ethanol proponents push is that it reduces the United States' dependence on imported oil. (The increase in domestic supplies due to the ability to extract formerly untappable oil through "fracking" altered that rationale for a while, but the underlying premise is still used.)

Extending gasoline with a domestically produced renewable resource creates jobs and keeps money in the country instead of sending it off to foreign oil producers.

The carbon dioxide emitted by burning ethanol is partly offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants to produce the corn. Pulling oil out of the ground only produces more carbon dioxide emissions in every step of the process.

Ethanol has a higher octane rating than gasoline, which is useful in raising the octane level of gasoline.

That all sounds good, so what's the problem?

Many of the touted benefits of ethanol are not so clear-cut.

It's not even clear we get a net gain in energy with ethanol. Growing huge quantities of corn by modern farming methods takes a lot of energy and petroleum: operating farm machinery to plant corn, apply fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, harvest the grain, transport it to refineries and turn it into fuel. There are studies that show a net gain and others that show that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than it yields. These calculations have so many variables that who you believe is usually more determined by your political perspective than pure science. Both sides believe the studies that bolster their case and both sides accuse scientists behind opposing studies of being biased due to financial ties and political agendas. Officially, the U.S. Department of Energy contends that ethanol adds more energy than is needed to produce it.

Another drawback of ethanol is that it has 28 percent less energy density than pure gasoline. So a vehicle running on E15, for example, will get lower fuel mileage than one running on 100 percent gasoline.

Not all environmentalists are convinced that ethanol is a good idea. An acre of corn produces just 300 gallons of ethanol. A cornfield on a modern farm is the least biodiverse site you're easily going to find, and plus there's water use, herbicides and pesticides to be considered. And as for creating jobs, less than 1.5 percent of U.S. workers are employed in all forms of agriculture, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Finally, there's the practical and ethical question of how using food for fuel affects food prices.

So again, why is there ethanol in my gas?

Two reasons: money and inattention. The money comes in the form of political donations. In the two-year Congressional election cycle ending in 2012, agribusiness interests donated $90 million to federal candidates, according to Among agricultural interests, corn growers ranked behind only one cotton group and the massively subsidized and protected sugar industry.

The inattention comes from most of the rest of us. The use of ethanol can be easily sold to a broad spectrum of voters, from the left to the right, by highlighting a benefit that appeals to the particular voter: it reduces greenhouse gases, creates jobs, reduces dependence on foreign oil producers, etc. There's something for almost everyone, and most voters aren't going to delve too deeply into the details before running off to do something more important, like keep up with the Kardashians.

In politics, money votes, even when most voters don't. For example, maybe the only thing that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida on the right and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota on the left agree on is that sugar should be subsidized by the government. Guess what's grown (in different forms) in both states.

So if members of Congress can support industries that are funneling them money and can use a variety of plausible-sounding explanations that are varied enough to appeal to voters of all political persuasions, why would ethanol not be mandated in your gasoline?

What can I do about this?

Well, the AMA is asking you to urge your representatives in Congress to support a bill that would outlaw E15.

On a practical level, web sites such as provide lists of places you can buy E0. Most of these are retailers who serve boaters, farmers and others who have equipment not meant to use E10. It's not a solution, because these vendors are scattered through farm country and at marinas, usually out of the way. But it is an option. We loaded the web site's listings into a Google map so you can see where they are located.

And finally, if E15 does show up at gas pumps near you — be careful which button you push.