The Environmental Protection Agency is set this summer to decide on whether to allow a 50-percent increase in the amount of ethanol in the nation's gasoline supply, and the implications worry members of a coalition of boating groups who warn that testing will be inadequate to ensure the safe usage of these new (mid-level) forumulations.

ALEXANDRIA, Va., - This summer, the Environmental Protection Agency will decide on whether to allow a 50-percent increase in the amount of ethanol in the nation's gasoline supply, from the current E10 (or containing 10 percent ethanol) up to E15 (containing 15 percent ethanol) - a move that a broad coalition of consumer groups fears would be devastating to older-model engines.

If EPA officials move forward with the increase, the allowable ethanol mix will move from the current 10 percent (E10) to 15 percent ethanol (E15).

However, the consumer advocacy group warns that testing data on the E15 ethanol formulation will be completed on only a small group of 2001 and newer model vehicles by this time frame, and that could me than consumers with older cars, boats, non-road vehicles or gas-engine powered equipment could find that the fuel is not compatible or safe for use. is coalition of 46 motor sports, environmental, food and citizen advocate groups asking for "science first" before the EPA allows a new fuel on the market.

Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatU.S.), the nation's largest boat owners group, is part of this coalition and is concerned about potential ramifications of increased ethanol percentages.

"Some of our members have advised us of performance, compatibility and possible safety issues with the current E10 blend," BoatU.S. Vice President of Government Affairs Margaret Podlichsaid. "To add 50 percent more ethanol to every gallon of gas without first knowing what it will do to the older vehicles and other gasoline engines we currently own is simply irresponsible.

The U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety also has raised concerns about higher levels of ethanol and the lack of independent testing.

Ethanol, a strong solvent, can accelerate the deterioration of fuel system components such as fuel lines, causing them to fail and increasing the level of risk for fire or explosions.

Last year Growth Energy, the lobbying group for the ethanol industry, petitioned the EPA to allow the sale of so-called "mid-level" ethanol blends beyond the current 10 percent up to the 15-percent level.

In a Nov. 30 response, the EPA indicated to Growth Energy that approval of increased ethanol levels could be in the offing.

"Although all of the studies have not been completed, our engineering assessment to date indicates that the robust fuel, engine, and emissions control systems on newer vehicles (likely 2001 and newer model years) will likely be able to accommodate higher ethanol blends, such as E15," the EPA memo reads.

However, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, whose mission is to support an "informed national legislature," reports in a Jan. 28 Report for Congress that the EPA's November response letter "(m)ade no comment on the status of testing for older vehicles or for non-road engines."

"Currently, no automaker warranties its vehicles to use gasoline higher than 10-percent ethanol," the CRS report also states. "(S)mall engine manufacturers similarly limit the allowable level of ethanol."

The CRS report also says it's unclear if the current fuel distribution systems – the pumps, tanks, delivery vehicles and underground gas lines – can tolerate blends higher than E10.

"Even if the fuel is approved by EPA for use in motor vehicles, presumably fuel suppliers could be unwilling to sell the fuel unless they are confident that it will not damage their existing systems or lead to liability issues in the future," the CRS reports.

The report adds a comment by the independent certification and testing company Underwriters Laboratories saying that current state gasoline mixes can actually be delivered from pumps with much higher ratios of ethanol - giving rise to the concern that an increase in ethanol percentages could produce super-high doses of ethanol at the pump.

"Under normal business conditions, E10 at the dispenser (fuel pump) can vary from about 7to 13 percent ethanol," the report quotes UL as saying. "Assuming a similar variance would exist for E15, it is likely under normal conditions ethanol concentrations would exceed the 15% limit."

Podlich of BoatU.S. said the science simply isn't available to justify introduction of high-ethanol gasoline mixtures.

"We recognize that alternative fuels must be brought to market in the U.S.," she said. "However, there is also a growing awareness among consumers that corn-based ethanol is not the environmental panacea it was thought to be several years ago.

"Increased food costs, changes in land use, and the energy required to produce ethanol are now giving many Americans second thoughts." users are encouraged to email Mississippi's congressional delegation opposing this move. The state's senators and representatives can be emailed via these links:

Rep. Travis Childers, Mississippi 1st District
Greg Harper, Mississippi 3rd District
• Rep. Gene Taylor, Mississippi 4th District
Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi 2nd District
Sen. Thad Cochran
Sen. Roger Wicker