Judging by the label

LIHUE — “Ethanol free.”

It sounds self-explanatory.

But some pilots recently learned the gasoline that’s labeled free of ethanol doesn’t necessarily mean exactly that.

There is ethanol in ethanol-free fuel, as allowed by law, according to petroleum suppliers and officials with state and federal agencies. They also say the state mandate does not require labeling to indicate when ethanol is present.

The fact that up to 10 percent ethanol — the flammable alcohol used in fuel — may be present in ethanol-free products may be bothersome to car owners who pay the premium rate. But it’s a big concern for some airplane and boat owners who unknowingly use ethanol and could potentially damage their engines.

Terry Donnelly, owner of Blue Dolphin charters, is one of those. He’s also a private pilot who recently bought a Cessna 172, with an engine type that is allowed to use non-ethanol automotive gas.

“I check the fuel every day to make sure there is no water in it,” Donnelly said. “Lately, I started using ethanol-free and noticed the gas was cloudy and thought I must have accidentally used the wrong pump.”

After doing his own field testing, Donnelly said he discovered that it was the ethanol-free gas that had ethanol. Now, he is worried about his engines.

“We get fuel for our outboard engines and I think it is bad for them, too,” he said. “They say it may be all right for engines that are designed for it, but I see that it is really hard on engines and dissolves fiberglass tanks. It is not good for the marine industry.”

Concerned pilots

Dave Timko owns three aircraft and his Cessna 172 may legally use auto gas. He said people are buying ethanol-free for their boats, planes and other engines that are exempted from the ethanol mandate.

“They say they can legally have up to 3 percent ethanol in the ethanol-free fuel,” he said. “We want people to know that it’s not right and they shouldn’t advertise ethanol-free when it is not, and then charge a premium rate.”

Timko also became aware of the problem after checking his fuel. He said gas and water separate in the tank, but when ethanol is present in the fuel it will blend with water and create a milky cloud.

It could be dangerous, too, especially when pilots are using it in their lighter aircraft unknowingly, he said.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association states online that “blended fuels can cause problems with aircraft fuel bladders, seals, and engines.”

Fuel-testers.com lists 1,600 “ethanol-free” stations across the country. They report that only 10 percent have a purity level of zero. None of those were listed in Hawaii.

Not intended

for airplanes

Aloha Petroleum spokeswoman Caroline Witherspoon of Becker Communications, said the company’s ethanol-free gasoline is distributed through the same gasoline infrastructure as all other gasoline. Therefore, it may pick up trace elements of ethanol along the way.

Aviation gasoline, on the other hand, is distributed through a unique system, so it can be kept completely ethanol free, she said.

There is no requirement under Hawaii law for Aloha to have pump signage, Witherspoon added. As a result of this complaint, Aloha is considering adding signage to say that the “fuel is not intended for aviation use.”

Ethanol is also not recommended for vintage vehicles and additives are available. The demand for ethanol-free fuel for certain vehicles allows for exceptions to the mandate.

“In response to the customer’s complaint that Aloha sold him ethanol-free fuel contaminated with ethanol, we promptly tested our fuel and found it tested clean within industry-accepted specifications for its intended use as a motor fuel,” she said.

Aloha Petroleum supplies 54 Aloha and 45 Shell fueling stations throughout the state. Three Kauai locations carry ethanol-free fuel, the Kauai Automated Fuel stations in Puhi and Kekaha, managed by Senter Petroleum, and the Waimea Shell station.

Senter Petroleum General Manager David Harjo, said they purchase fuel from Chevron and Aloha Petroleum. The non-ethanol gas is solely from Aloha.

Harjo said the one reference that comes to mind on this issue is an American Society of Testing and Materials Report No. D4815, which addressed the standard specifications for automatic spark ignition of fuel.

A 0.35 percent mass oxygen fuel formula equals about 1 percent ethanol, Harjo said. He has yet to see a labeling or any other requirement for that.

“We take labeling pretty seriously,” Harjo said.

Ethanol and ethanol-free is intended for automobiles and ground vehicles, he said. It was not intended or advertised for airplane use.

“We don’t want to misguide anyone,” Harjo added.

Regulation and requirements

Hawaii mandates the use of ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, as a fuel additive to all gasoline sold in the state. It is designed to boost octane levels while reducing exhaust emissions at the same time.

The state came into compliance with its E10 mandate to have 85 percent of gasoline with 10 percent ethanol on April 2, 2006.

The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism gathers data on the volume of fuel to and from Hawaii, along with the total volume of fuel refined, manufactured or compounded by refineries. It also tracks the total volume distributed by island and liquid fuel type, including aviation fuel, diesel fuel, biofuels and other types of fuel.

As it relates to ethanol specifically, section 486J-10, requires the DBEDT to adopt rules to require that gasoline sold in the state for use in motor vehicles contain 10 percent ethanol by volume.

Regarding non-ethanol labeling, the requirement is to only label fuel when it contains ethanol, according to DBEDT. It states that studies show that up to 10 percent ethanol does not harm motor vehicle engines.

DBEDT states that any labeling and testing requirements would be regulated and overseen by the Quality Assurance Division of the Measurement Standards Branch of the Department of Agriculture.

No labeling rule

Jeri Kahana, administrator for the Quality Assurance Division, said they test for the accuracy of octane and fluid dispensing. But they do not address labeling.

“We have no mandate regarding the minimum or maximum level of ethanol in our statues,” Kahana said.

The Federal Trade Commission sets the standard of what a fuel pump labeling would include and look like, according to the EPA. There is one special additional labeling requirement for E15 (Ethanol 15) fuel, and the FTC currently requires labeling fuel containers including ethanol.

Frank Dorman, FTC Public Affairs said the FTA does not have federal requirements regarding ethanol level notification at the pumps. The Automotive Fuel Rating Rule only requires posting the octane rating on fuel pumps.

The FTC rule covers liquid motor vehicle fuels including gasoline, generally a mixture of approximately 90 percent unleaded gasoline and 10 percent denatured ethanol.

“The automotive fuel rating of gasoline is the octane rating, and diesel is not covered by the Rule,” Dorman said. “If there are any other labeling requirements, they would be Hawaii’s and/or the Environmental Protection Agency’s.”

Aloha Petroleum noted the pending changes to Hawaii Administrative Rules under the Department of Agriculture. The state legislature this session has passed HB1938 SD1 which is awaiting the governor’s signature.

The bill adopts the standards and rules relating to specifications for engine fuels as published by the American Society for Testing and Materials and the Society of Automotive Engineers. It allows for a board to adjust rules on advertising, labeling, standards, handling, storing, dispensing and selling of petroleum products.

Should the board revise Chapter 86 regarding labeling of petroleum products and dispensing standards, then it could signal a change ahead.

“I was driving 20 miles out of my way to buy this premium gasoline,” Timko said. “I spend more than $3,000 a month on fuel for my business and if they are not selling what they advertise, then there should be a label, or the sign should not say it’s ethanol-free.”

• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0424 or by emailing tlaventure@thegardenisland.com.

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