'Seconds matter when getting a roof saw or a chainsaw ready.... You don't have time to flub-dub around.'

Ethanol, gasoline, and public safety

Wed, 04/17/2013 - 8:45am

Most of us agree that it is advantageous for our country when we can use American-made or American-grown products rather than relying on purchases from countries with which we have a less than stable relationship. Oil is the obvious example. When corn ethanol was first introduced, we were told it was a clean, renewable, American product, better for our environment, our international affairs, and our pocketbooks.

'Seconds matter when you're trying to get a roof saw or a chainsaw ready, when you have to vent a roof. You don't have time to flub-dub around. You need to know that when you pull that cord it's going to work.'

But ethanol has proven to be less than wonderful for some of our engines.

Islanders, mariners, small engine users of all kinds, and members of the public safety community have been struggling with ethanol gasoline in recent years. The fuel's affinity for water makes it difficult to store, and ethanol, which is basically alcohol, a solvent, is blamed for many types of equipment failures and maintenance problems. Many manufacturers of small engines, older vehicles, and other equipment do not recommend the use of ethanol gasoline and some do not warranty machines that have been run on this fuel. Consumers in Maine generally have no realistic alternative available. Small quantities of an ethanol-free gasoline can be purchased as a very expensive specialty product, but that ranges from roughly $8.00 a QUART from a chainsaw dealer to more from specialized equipment manufacturers.

Representative Jeff Timberlake (R –Turner) is an eighth-generation farmer, a trained mechanic, a pilot, a snowmobile enthusiast, and he runs an equipment rental business. He has been a member of the Turner Fire Dept for 35 years, and owns Ricker Hill Orchards. He was eager to talk earlier this month about a bill he sponsored, H.P. 97/LD 115, "An Act to Join in a Prohibition on Motor Fuel Containing Corn-based Ethanol."

Rep. Timberlake summarized the bill as follows: "If three New England states pass this, a non-ethanol gasoline would be made available to the consumers."

We can hope.

This particular bill may not get through this round, but Timberlake and others hope the conversation about options to ethanol will continue.

"Ethanol is using our food source," he said. "We use corn for animal feed and in so many food products. It's one of the biggest sustainers of everything we do. So much of our food supply is corn-based."

Timberlake cited statistics indicating that of the 17 billion bushels of corn grown in the United States last year, five to seven billion bushels went for ethanol. He detailed how the promised economic benefits of using an American product as a fuel additive did not pan out, either. On the contrary, he explained, the costs of both fuel and feed have gone up due to the use of ethanol.

According to Timberlake: "Corn 10 years ago, maybe even seven or eight years ago, was running around $2.50 to $3.50 a bushel. Recently on the Chicago Mercantile corn was at $7.58 a bushel. It's more than doubled. Granted, last year, you can argue there was a corn shortage due to the drought, so that has raised the price of corn a bit, but it has only raised it .50 or .60 a bushel to be honest. Corn the year before was running about $6.70 a bushel, and they had a bumper crop that year. My argument is that this is the biggest boondoggle that government has ever thrown out to people. It helps so few people in the United States. It hurts the rest of the country."

We discussed the extremely diverse range of consumers and others who object to the ethanol mixture, from those who disagree in principle with agricultural land being used this way, to those who feel they are paying more for an inferior motor fuel, to those who find that it does not suit their needs — or their engines.

"This is a nonpartisan bill," Timberlake assured me. "Everybody seems to be pretty much in agreement about this."

I asked where the problem lies. If so many gasoline consumers want an option, why don't we have it?

"I have had a conversation with Irving Oil's head man in New England. Irving Oil supplies [a huge percentage] of the gas in northern New England. They are the big boys on the block, and Irving is only making gas designed to take ethanol. They don't produce any gas in the New Brunswick refinery that can take the other available additive. It's going to require a re-investment to get out of ethanol. This is all about money."


I spoke with a number of Maine public safety professionals about the risks to small engines used in emergency situations. Outboards, chainsaws, portable fire pumps and other equipment may sit for long stretches of time between uses, but when it is needed, that's no time for a repair job. There seem to be three options available to fire departments and similar agencies: use ethanol-free aviation gasoline if they can get it, but that product is not for sale to anybody without an aircraft; buy the very expensive specialty gas by the quart, or change out the fuel regularly, use a lot of stabilizer additives, and run the equipment very frequently as a maintenance procedure.

Kevin Waters, of Penobscot Island Air in Owls Head, a former paramedic, ski patroller, and Coast Guardsman with a serious interest in emergency response concerns, reports that he has donated aviation fuel to a few Maine fire departments.

"We've been approached by some of the fire departments and emergency management agencies," he said. "Since they have pumps and outboards and things that aren't used all the time, they have a lot of problem with the fuel; 100 low-lead doesn't separate, it stores very well, so we've donated a few gallons."

George Tarkleson, the water taxi captain and a trained responder on Matinicus, finds himself involved when things go wrong on that isolated island. Tarkleson spoke for many when he commented: "I hate ethanol. The talk about raising the percentage (of ethanol in the gasoline) to 20 percent makes me sick. They say it cuts our reliance on foreign oil, but it does not give as much power as gas, so our miles-per-gallon decreases. So, in turn, we burn more gas than we were in the beginning without ethanol. This does not take in account all the energy it takes to grow the crops and turn them into ethanol.

"Anyway, my older outboard was made before ethanol was around, and I finally had to stop using it because it would it almost never work — all because of ethanol, the dealer said. I used Stabil and fuel filters, and put lots of money into it, all to no avail. My newer outboard is better, but I think I put more Marine Stabil in the tank than gasoline.

"I believe they should not raise the concentration of ethanol, and they should provide a no-ethanol gas for use in [machinery other than cars]. Buying it in quarts is super expensive, and we should not have to do it. If they sell it in quarts, why can't we buy it in gallons?"

Chief Michael Thurlow, of the Scarborough, Maine Fire Department, mentioned how: "Seconds matter when you're trying to get a roof saw or a chainsaw ready, when you have to vent a roof. You don't have time to flub-dub around. You need to know that when you pull that cord it's going to work."

Chief Thurlow and Deputy Chief Glen Deering told me that they don't purchase the expensive "special gas" that comes by the quart, although they have considered it.

"We've had problems, but not like other people. Our equipment is run weekly if not daily. We change our gas all the time, and we use Sea Foam and Stabil. It's costing us money and time and we're buying additives we shouldn't have to."

Chief Thurow and Deputy Chief Deering offered some advice for users of the stabilizer additives.

"We have had a few things where we've had to change carburetors. You have to maintain your equipment, you have to be right on top if it (check small engine equipment frequently,) and when you add the stabilizer you have to run it for a few minutes. You don't just dump it in and leave it."

"It's not a big worry here, but it is on our mind. We're fortunate that we have enough people to take care of everything. Small towns, small volunteer departments, might not (have somebody to run every piece of equipment every few days)."

Rockland Fire Chief Charlie Jordan says his department does purchase the special gasoline at a very high price. They feel they have no choice.

"We've seen the Jaws of Life power pack all gummed up from separated ethanol gasoline. Not on a scene, thankfully — we found it on routine inspection — but you can't have that. We're kind of a hostage to buying this stuff (the special fuel)."

"It (ethanol) is ruining small engines. It costs us a lot of money."

Representative Timberlake made a good point during our conversation. "I tried to tell Irving," he said, "This is your chance to stand up and be a hero [by providing a non-ethanol option]. People in the state of Maine would love you!"


Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.


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