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Sort 418: Inflexible Fuel
Burned by E-85

by Dear Jon
February 23, 2010

An Open Letter to the Ethanol Industry

Cc: Readers, Please cause this to go viral

I drive a so-called flex fuel vehicle. Please be advised I will never use your product E-85 again. I intend now to use this column to provide a public service which, to my awareness, you have not done. My earnest hope is that this article will come to your attention because it goes viral.

I invite industry representatives to respond. As you do, please know that a lawsuit is at the back of my mind.

As any normal consumer I was glad to put ethanol in my car because of its hype as cleaner-burning, because it is a home-grown alternative to foreign oil, and because it is cheaper than the unleaded petroleum at the pump. I am a product of the midwest, not that far removed from the land, enough so that I felt a regional patriotism on driving past ethanol refineries and signs from local corn-growers. I actually thought I was doing something valuable for our society and our economy.

What a sucker I turned out to be.

You see, I live in Illinois. Here we are required to put our vehicles through periodic EPA "emissions tests" in order to renew our license plates. And here is what the E-85 industry forgot to tell me. Ethanol messes up the sensors in the car which the EPA reads to determine the pollution rate. It is not that Ethanol is failing the test, it is that Ethanol makes it impossible for the test to be taken.

Illinois test-providers won't say that. They leave it up to mechanics. So this is my story:

1. With a February expiration on my plates, I went to an EPA emissions test center in December. I was confident everything was in order because I had been putting in the cleaner-burning E-85. The test could not register. I was asked if I had recent work done on the car, and I had (sort of), so it was suggested that I should put some more miles on the car for the sensors to re-set themselves. 

2. My mechanic tests the car in late January. Still not ready.

3. By now I have put thousands on the van since its last "repair." I take it to a test center in February. Still not ready. I show the report to my mechanic and leave the car with him.

4. It is Monday, February 15th, when my wife gets a call from my mechanic: Have we been using ethanol? Um...yah. In fact, I had just filled the tank with E-85 on Saturday.

5. I had to burn through the tank, and then fill it up with petroleum and 1.5 tanks later it is ... still not ready.

6. My plates expire on Sunday. According to my mechanic who spoke with me on Feb. 22nd, a check with Chrysler information pages suggests that it may take 5 - 6 tanks of gasoline to purge the ethanol from the systems to the point that the sensors can register. Great. Only four tanks to go.

7. Using my harshest midwest colloquialism without getting me kicked out of church, let me just say: Golly fellahs. I have a job. I wasn't planning on a coast-to-coast road trip this week. Dang Nabbit.

Sure, the government of Illinois is intrusive and in many ways unhelpful. Maybe it isn't really up to ethanol producers to have a grip on the laws of every state in the union. But Illinois is midwestern, with corn for ethanol grown within five miles of my house. Does a patriot dump this stuff into the tank only to lose his plates?

So pardon me if you think I am laying the blame at the wrong place. We can all fuss about government. However, and I think most midwesterners understand this point, the law is the law, and ethanol has caused me to be out of compliance in a corn-growing midwestern state. Thank you for nothing.

Corn is for eating. If you don't like my drift, you can stick it in your ears.

City Slickerly Yours,

Jon, a Former Ethanol Consumer

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