A crack in the ethanol armor?

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this print column appeared as a blog on BoatingIndustry.com.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (and the increased use of ethanol it requires) has long been a concern for the boating industry.

Study after study by the industry has shown the damage E15 can cause to marine engines and other small engines.

And recent decisions by the EPA on RFS volume obligations have only exacerbated the issue, guaranteeing more E15 will make it into the marketplace as more ethanol is blended into the nation’s fuel supply, according to the NMMA. (Read more here.)

That decision highlighted the need for a legislative answer to the problem – reforming or replacing the RFS with a more sensible solution. There are several bills percolating in Congress, many of which are supported by NMMA, MRAA, BoatUS and others in the industry — and we’ll take a deeper look at those in our annual government issue in April.

There are a number of reasons to be optimistic that something can finally happen this year, but one development that caught my attention was Ted Cruz’s win in the Iowa caucuses in February (a few days ago, as I write this). On one hand, he fits the profile of a lot of past winners on the Republican side in Iowa — conservative, appeals to evangelicals, etc. But there is one big difference: Cruz came out against the Renewable Fuel Standard and its ethanol requirements.

That’s something that once spelled certain electoral doom in the nation’s first caucuses. Ethanol has often been called the “third rail” of Iowa politics — touch it and you die. The so-called “ethanol pledge” was something every candidate who hoped to win in Iowa would make, promising to continue supporting those ethanol requirements the Renewable Fuel Standard.

His opposition even had Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, calling for Cruz’s defeat in the state.

Despite all that, he won, indicating that perhaps ethanol will not be the dominant factor it has been for years in Iowa politics.

The more cynical of us would be inclined to posit that the only reason ethanol has had so much support for so long is Iowa’s outsized impact on the presidential race.

After all, the Senate has often been described as 100 people who believe they’re going to be president some day — and for years the message was if you want to win Iowa, don’t mess with King Corn.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign we’re headed in the right direction.



  1. Steve Vander Griend

    I feel I have done more research of ethanol as a fuel component especially around octane. I would like to talk to you since I don’t see study after study showing ethanol damages engines yet you may be fully unaware of Mercury Marine’s warning about aromatics in our gasoline supply.

  2. I remember back in 1989 when the NMMA required a yellow warning label to be affixed to every new boat that warned against the use of ethanol. When pressured and faced with the realization that most marine engine manufacturers approved the use of 10% ethanol they agreed to quit using the labels when their current supply was gone. The ethanol industry then purchased their supply of 35,000 labels for over $13,000 and I still have them in my garage. Interesting that 27 years later people are still writing this nonsense. With a minimal effort of correct fuel management, ethanol will assist with keeping your marine fuel system dry and clean.

  3. Three problems with your analysis of Iowa.

    1. Cruz got the most vote, but still a small % of overall votes. 83% of Iowans voted for pro-RFS candidates. And Iowans strongly support the RFS.

    2. Cruz actually spent a HUGE amount of time telling Iowans his energy plan would boost ethanol use 60% ABOVE the RFS levels.

    3. And boaters are seeing through Big Oil’s big lies on ethanol and boats. Get the truth.

    And as long as we’re talking truth. The corn ethanol subsidies ENDED in 2011. Not one taxpayer penny goes to corn ethanol. Oil on the other hand continues to receive billions in taxpayer subsidies, some of which go back to 1913. Those are facts, not opinions.

  4. Jonathan,
    I operate and ethanol plant in Windsor, Colorado, and I also own a boat. I get so tired of hearing these scare tactics when it comes to higher ethanol blends and boating, or other small engines. 15% or higher ethanol blends are not going to magically replace regular gas blends (E10) or non-ethanol gas blends approved for marine engines. Quite the opposite actually. Our industry partners with fuel retailers to offer and promote E15 and higher ethanol blends for appropriately approved engines. These higher ethanol blends are offerings, not mandated, and all of our partnerships also continue to offer traditional gas blends. The availability of E15 at your local gas station will not ever replace regular gas blends (E10). Stop with the scare tactics and see the facts. Just as you choose not to put diesel in your gas marine engine, you can choose not to put E15 in if that’s your choice.

  5. I would ask Mr. Sweet to provide references to the studies about ethanol that he cites but I won’t waste my time, or the time of readers, because they were either paid for by the oil companies or do not exist! Boaters have used ethanol for decades without any issue. The standard fuel blend nationwide, E10 — a 10 percent ethanol/gasoline blend — is perfectly safe to use in boat engines and is, in fact, covered under warranty by every major boat engine manufacturer in the country. Boaters would have to go out of their way to fill up on blends higher than 10 percent, which is illegal. Less than 1 percent of gas stations offer E15 and those that do also offer — you guessed it — E10.

    Boaters must arm themselves with the truth, that ethanol is the lowest-cost source of octane on the planet. For true performance, fill up on ethanol — and the facts.

    • You can find links to many of the marine industry studies cited above here: https://www.nmma.org/government/issues/ethanol. Here is a link to a survey of our readers, where 73 percent of respondents reported seeing damage to engines from ethanol in their business: https://boatingindustry.com/features/2015/06/09/ethanol-major-repair-issue/

      You can also find more coverage of the issue in the dozens of articles we have written about ethanol and E15 over the last few years. Simply search for “ethanol” in the search box at the top of the page.

      • Hi Jonathan,

        Where you need to look is the country of Brazil who uses not a measly 10 or 15% ethanol, but where the common gasoline has 27% ethanol. I am sure they have boats and boat engines there which are identical to ours.

        Here are some interesting quotes from Mercury I’d like to pass on:

        …Mercury Marine says, “After the transition period from E0, E10 may actually be a superior marine fuel as it tends to keep low levels of water moving through the fuel system, keeping the system ‘dry.'”

        …Mercury Marine, which recently hosted a Webinar on ethanol myths, noted that ethanol does not “grab water molecules out of the air.” It is hydrophilic, which means ethanol holds water. With regular gasoline (E0) as well at E10, the primary cause of water collecting in tanks is condensation on tank walls. But unlike E0, which can absorb almost no moisture, E10 can hold up to half of one percent of water by volume, and the water molecules will dissolve in the fuel. The “solubilized” water will bypass the water separator and burn harmlessly through the engine…

  6. E15 is a choice at the pump this will be no different than choosing diesel or gasoline. Regular unleaded gas will be a choice at the pump E15 is not going to replace it only compete with it. Mr. Sweet please share your studies. Last I checked the EPA only approved E15 for 2001 or new cars and trucks and it’s not approved for marine use or small engines so it would be illegal for you to run E15 in your boat anyhow.
    although I’d run it in my boat if I had it available in the area because I know my boat will run great on it because of the octane value, it is cleaner for the lakes that I will be boating on. You see Ethanol is the cleanest burning ingredient in gas and if we didn’t have ethanol we would be exhausting harmful toxins like cancer causing MTBE in the water.

  7. Jonathan,

    I have worked for the ethanol industry now 15 years. It is a great industry here in America that we all should be proud of. It supports the ideals of what it truly means to be an American. We use feed corn grown by American Farmers for the cattle industry. The neat thing about the process is we take this corn in. Grind it up and cook it into mash. Two days later we’re distilling a clean burning fuel source to you as the consumer. Several other co-products are derived from it like corn syrup, CO2 & dry ice, WDGS (wet distillers grains solubles) and corn oil. All of this from a crop that is grown every year like clock work. Before you say anything about food vs fuel – WE DON’T USE HUMAN CONSUMABLE CORN!
    The US is still the #1 exporter of corn in the world.

    The links are the same repeated information from the small engine industry. The de-laminated fuel lines and fiberglass fuel storage was an issue before ethanol. Old fuel storage tanks had to be pulled out in the early 90’s because the gasoline couldn’t be properly stored. Several scientists and others have proven that ethanol does not accelerate damage to fuel lines. Take a section of new fuel line and cut in half. Soak one half in E-10 and the other in your non-ethanol gasoline and you’ll be surprised at the end result. Ethanol is giving you a clean burning fuel and keeps your fuel and fuel delivery system dry. The bigger concern I have as a fellow boater is why we’re not burning more of this fuel. Our engines are designed to exhaust into the water that we drink, play in, and essentially harvest our food from. Ethanol replaced a know carcinogen MTBE. I have a link below that shows the difference of the two fuels burned.


    Phil Turchen
    Plant Manager

  8. Independent studies (those not paid for by the ethanol industry) show that the RFS has harmed the environment and driven up the costs of food, fuel and more. The system can be fixed, but more ethanol is not the answer.

    Corn ethanol actually increases emissions and worsens air quality. How? Because farmers are plowing up millions of acres of land to grow corn, releasing so many emissions in the process that our emissions will double over 30 years. Not to mention the increased use of fertilizer that is harming our water quality, plus all the water that is wasted to water these crops. The United Nations has warned that if we continue to grow corn for ethanol mandates at the rate we’re going, nearly 1 in 10 gallons of water in America will be used up by biofuel crops by 2030.

    It has driven up prices at the pump, raised the cost of fuel and continues to damage the environment, Ethanol is not the answer!

    • FYI, most corn is fed by rain and the record year for irrigation in the US was back in 1998. Our lawns are the largest irrigated “crop”.

      Here is the impact the ethanol mandates have had on corn:


      2014 WEIGHTED CORN PRICE =$3.70 WITH 14.4B GAL MANDATE (& >$100 oil half the year)



      Corn and all grains are in huge surplus and priced below 2007 while we make over three times as much ethanol. If ethanol made food go up, how can this be? ANSWER = it can not be.

      Most people and studies ignore or are unaware that feed is the most important component of corn and corn ethanol. If we all became vegetarians overnight, corn ethanol would disappear overnight. If ethanol disappeared overnight, we would still grow the same amount of corn.

      In the above link, please note that we grew 84.6 million acres of corn in 1976 before ethanol and HFCS and 88.9 million in 2015 and in fact even more acres in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

      Corn ethanol only uses the part of the corn kernel that cattle can’t digest(the carbohydrates) and otherwise waste on the ground in their manure while leaving the feed(proteins, fats, & minerals) intact.

  9. I run a boat dealership. We service and store hundreds of boats every year and I can tell you without a doubt that ethanol is responsible for the vast majority of the engine damage we see every year. Corn should be for food, not fuel!

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