UL Faces Pain at the Pump
by Paul Merrion
Underwriters Laboratories is under pressure from ethanol backers including Sen. Barack Obama, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert and Sen. Richard Durbin to remove the speed bump the lab put in the path of a new ethanol-based fuel touted by President George W. Bush and the auto industry.
Underwriters Laboratories (UL) shocked the ethanol industry late last year when the non-profit product-testing firm put the brakes on the fast-growing alternative biofuel known as E85, a blend of 85% corn-based ethanol and 15% gasoline.
Citing concerns that E85 could corrode pumps used to dispense it at 1,200 filling stations nationwide, UL revoked its safety certifications on parts used in E85 dispensers. At the same time, the Northbrook-based lab called for a thorough review and new testing procedures for E85 pumps.
UL's move coming after years of E85 sales with no reported pump problems has caused an outcry in Congress, especially among lawmakers representing big corn-growing states like Illinois.
At stake is UL's reputation for independence in the face of pressure from politicians, industrial interests and activists. Ethanol backers, meanwhile, are counting on E85 to boost demand for ethanol.
Rep. Hastert, former speaker of the House and a senior member of the House Energy Committee, is considering hearings on the matter. "There are certainly discussions going on," says Michael Stokke, chief of staff to Rep. Hastert, R-Plano. "He's looking at anything that will speed the process up."
Sen. Obama, D-Ill., helped organize a bipartisan letter sent in March to UL CEO Keith Williams from 14 Midwest senators, including Sen. Durbin, D-Ill., asking him to clarify how long the safety review of E85 pumps would take.
The criticism has led UL to promise it could develop new E85 safety standards by yearend. But only then will it be able to test new pumps, which means they won't get the UL stamp of approval until late this year or early next year.
"It's likely it would be in 2008," says John Drengenberg, UL's manager of consumer affairs.
Expanding the number of stations equipped to distribute E85 is critical to the fuel's growth. But UL is concerned that E85 with an ethanol content much higher than the standard 10% in conventional fuel blends mixes easily with water, creating the potential for corrosion in pipes and gaskets.
Mr. Drengenberg argues that thorough testing of pumps is "just the right thing to do."
INSTALLATION ON HOLD
Before UL's decision, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers were poised to install hundreds of E85 pumps. Now, those efforts are on hold. For liability reasons and to meet fire codes, pumps need to be certified by a third party like UL.
Last week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a bill requiring 15 billion gallons of ethanol production by 2015, almost triple last year's output. But that target assumes ethanol will be blended into the nation's gasoline supply at a level of more than 10%.
"If these pumps aren't on the market by 2009, you could have a problem," says Hans Detweiler, deputy director of energy and recycling at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. UL's decision "really destroyed the market," he adds.