E85, a blend of 85 percent corn-based ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, could be eating away at metal and plastic parts in pumps being used to dispense the fuel at gasoline stations, Underwriters Laboratories, the private product-safety testing group, said this month.
BP, the British oil company, said on Thursday that it would delay the expansion of E85 at its American gasoline outlets until the laboratories certified an E85 dispensing system. “BP is tracking this issue very closely,” Valerie Corr, a company spokeswoman, said.
Underwriters Laboratories and the Department of Energy are holding two days of hearings next week at the testing group’s headquarters outside Chicago, inviting oil companies, automakers and researchers to help develop standards for E85 equipment.
Underwriters Laboratories, which certifies the safety of everything from toasters to televisions, has temporarily withdrawn authorization for the U.L.-approved label on parts used in E85 dispensers. Those dispensers, it turns out, were modified from regular gasoline dispensers and were certified only for a maximum of 15 percent ethanol concentration; U.L. said it had never certified any E85-specific pumps.
The reversal has heightened concerns among some oil companies about the safety of E85 pumps on the market and threatens to slow the proliferation of the fuel, which automakers, President Bush and Midwest lawmakers are pushing as a homegrown alternative to gasoline.
Ethanol is primarily used as a 10 percent additive in gasoline, but in higher concentrations like E85 it can corrode some types of metal and even make some plastics brittle over time.
The testing group’s decision comes after about a decade of E85 sales without any known safety problems. It means that the pumps currently dispensing E85 do not meet some state and local fire codes that require certification from U.L. or another independent tester.
The standards review could take six months to two years, said John Drengenberg, U.L.’s consumer affairs manager. He said that the group would immediately begin testing E85 dispensers once a new standard was in place. “We are moving as quickly as possible to get these technically correct standards in place,” Mr. Drengenberg said.
E85 is offered in more than 1,000 stations, mostly in the Midwest. Some states, including Iowa and Minnesota, are offering financial incentives so that retailers will install the pumps, and federal money is also available. But the expanded use of the fuel has been slow.
Wal-Mart Stores, which announced in May that it was considering offering E85 at nearly 400 Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart stores nationwide, has yet to say which stores, if any, will offer the fuel. “We are still in the consideration phase on E85,” said Kevin Gardner, a Wal-Mart spokesman, and the certification issue “is one more thing to consider.”
In Iowa, the largest corn-growing state, plans to triple the number of E85 pumps over the next two years are moving ahead, said Lucy Norton, managing director for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. A state law does not require U.L.-approved dispensers until July 1, 2009, and the state fire marshal has said the certification issue “will not have any immediate effect on the dispensing of E85 in the state,” Ms. Norton said.