Dear EarthTalk: What is the Domestic Fuels Protection Act of 2012 and why are environmental groups opposing it?
— William Bledsoe, Methuen, MA
The Domestic Fuels Protection Act of 2012 (H.R. 4345) is a bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives in April 2012 by a bi-partisan group of Congress members to protect domestic producers of ethanol, biodiesel and other green-friendly fuels from liability to end-users who put the wrong kind of fuel or fuel mix into their tanks and damage their engines and/or emit exaggerated amounts of pollution accordingly. The idea behind the bill is to ensure that domestic “green” fuel and related equipment producers aren’t forced into dire financial straits or put out of business due to crippling liability claims.
But some feel that the fuel industry, whether its products are environmentally friendly or not, should be held accountable for damage its products may cause. Most recently, E15, a fuel blend containing 85 percent gasoline and 15 percent ethanol (a renewable crop-based fuel) came under fire for causing engine damage in some older cars and trucks. The EPA approved the use of E15 in 2010 after lobbying from the ethanol industry, which seeks to up the ethanol content of gasoline from what had been the standard of 10 percent, which is much easier for gasoline engines to tolerate.
The Auto Alliance, an industry group, recently released a study claiming that upwards of five million cars on U.S. roads today could be damaged if owners pump in E15 instead of straight gasoline or even the milder E10 (10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline). “Problems included damaged valves and valve seats, which can lead to loss of compression and power, diminished vehicle performance, misfires, engine damage, as well as poor fuel economy and increased emissions,” reports the group, adding that the potential costs to consumers are significant. “The most likely repair would be cylinder head replacement, which costs from $2,000-4,000 for single cylinder head engines and twice as much for V-type engines.”
Environmental and consumer advocates say that H.R. 4345 is a bad deal for consumers who will be left footing the bill for these repairs. The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) bemoans the bill because it would exempt hugely profitable and already “favored interests” including fuel producers, engine makers and retailers of fuels and fuel additives from liability for damage caused by their products.
H.R. 4345 is currently under committee review in the House, but analysts doubt it will ever make it to a floor vote given the contentious debate surrounding the fact that it puts the burden of repair costs on end consumers. Users on the govtrack.us website (which provides free and comprehensive legislative tracking for everyday citizens) give H.R. 4345 only a three percent chance of passing. Meanwhile, the Senate is considering a companion bill, the so-called Domestic Fuels Act (S. 2264). But unless the House passes its version first, the Senate bill is unlikely to gain much traction.