Landscapers have front-row seat as ethanol fight rages on

Updated Dec 29, 2015
Photo: OPEI.Photo: OPEI.

For landscape professionals, the controversy over the ethanol content of gasoline is worth keeping an eye on, especially if you’re a fan of prizefights. The knockdown, drag-out contest features two political heavyweights, big oil and big agriculture. They’ve been slugging it out in Washington for years, but the smart money says this bout isn’t likely to end – whether by knockout or even a decision – for a long time.

Although landscaping companies themselves may not have a direct stake in the fight, the people who manufacture much of their equipment are right in the middle of it.

Pretty much every gallon of gasoline sold in America today is 10 percent ethanol. Naturally, the folks who grow corn, along with the sizable industry that turns the corn into ethanol, believe the percentage should be much higher. Meanwhile, the folks in the other corner, many of whom belong to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), think today’s 10 percent is more than enough.

Photo: OPEI.Photo: OPEI.

During the past week, both sides in the battle found something to celebrate and something to criticize in the Obama administration’s handling of the ethanol issue. First, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came out with new fuel “blending” standards that aren’t likely to push the ethanol content of gasoline landscapers find at their local service stations above 10 percent for at least another few years.

Then, across town at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), officials announced the government would spend about $100 million to help build the infrastructure necessary to ensure your local gas stations eventually will have pumps capable of selling E-15 (gasoline with 15 percent ethanol), although the vehicle you’re driving may not be able to use it.

Confused? “Yes, the schizophrenic nature of it … well, it just shows the dysfunction in Washington,” says Kris Kiser, president and CEO of OPEI. Still, he understands perfectly why the Obama administration wants to give something to both sides. “These are big, entrenched interests,” Kiser says, “and of course now you’ve got (the presidential election of) 2016 in play.”

The makers of gasoline-powered equipment are confident their products can perform well and last as long as they’re supposed to when landscapers fill them with the E-10 found at virtually all U.S. gas stations these days. Even at 10 percent, however, the equipment industry warns customers to ensure they use only fresh gasoline.

Image: OPEI.Image: OPEI.

“The 10-percent window for alcohol is there for most carbureted products today,” says Kiser, “but there can be degradation (of equipment) even at 10 if the gas is stored for any amount of time.” Before using it in your equipment, he says, make sure the gasoline has been stored no more than 30 days.

And E-15? No way, Kiser says. “There are hundreds of millions of (equipment) units out there that are not designed for it,” so using it isn’t just going to undermine your trimmer or mower’s performance; it’s going to ruin your equipment.

If the agriculture lobby succeeds in bringing E-15 to a gas pump near you in the next three to four years, Kiser says, landscapers will be opting for battery-powered equipment. “And not just batteries but more electric and propane and diesel, where there’s not a problem.”

Keeping an eye on Washington as the fight plays out isn’t a bad idea, but landscapers needn’t tune in week by week. Asked whether the status quo might shift significantly between now and November 2016, Kiser didn’t hesitate: “The presidential election shuts everything down.”

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