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Getting Conned by the Ethanol Lobby

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For decades now, the federal government has been hitting us in the wallet in order to subsidize the production of ethanol – alcohol derived from corn that is now being added to gasoline for a variety of reasons, which include claims that it is better for the environment than gasoline and helps to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.

But if you’re a boat owner, there’s a good chance you’ve been feeling another big side-effect of these ethanol appropriations. As in, your boat's engine won’t start.

At least that’s the case with me.

It’s bad enough that taxpayers are forced to help foot the bill for the production of ethanol, but if you’re like me, you just may be perversely funding the destruction of your own property as well.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the potentially devastating effects of ethanol on boat engines in an article back in August, explaining that the gasoline substitute can be most harmful to boats that have fiberglass fuel tanks and carbureted engines. Specifically, "problems include erratic engine performance from water and contaminants trapped in boat fuel systems."

According to the Mercury Marine website, the fuel-system components of its engines "will withstand up to 10 percent ethanol content in gasoline." However, even gasoline with this ethanol formulation has been found to cause a chemical reaction with fiberglass where resins are drawn out and carried into the engine; it also tends to break down hoses and gaskets in motors that are not made with ethanol-compatible material, which leads to clogged fuel filters and carburetors, leaks, or engine damage.

I purchased a 2005 17-foot Boston Whaler with a 90-horsepower Mercury four-stroke outboard engine last summer, and this past August I had to have my carburetors repaired after only about 20 hours of use on the motor because it wouldn't start.

My wife and I wanted a boat that was relatively low-maintenance, one that would allow us to just get in it and go whenever we felt like it. To the contrary, we couldn't even get the engine started in November in order to pull the boat out of the water to winterize it. That means that in only a few months time – and after running the gas line dry following each use since the carburetor work, per recommendation of the mechanic – the engine again failed to start.

Since my problems began, I've discovered that Mercury's 90 four-stroke motor, in particular, has been causing headaches for many other boat owners as well, which may indicate that this engine contains some design characteristics making it even more susceptible to ethanol issues than other motors happen to be. Nevertheless, the point remains that ethanol is wreaking havoc for many boaters – havoc resulting from government regulations and incentives aimed at increasing the production and use of gasoline formulated with ethanol.

Worst of all – aside from coercive government mandates that impose all sorts of costs on citizens – there is evidence suggesting that this ethanol push is more or less intended to be one big handout for American corn farmers, and, by extension, ethanol manufacturers.

According to the non-partisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, “the United States government has granted a multitude of tax incentives and subsidies to promote the growth of a domestic ethanol industry” since 1978. Indeed, the group claims that “ethanol has neither reduced dependence on foreign oil nor significantly helped to reduce pollution,” and that taxpayer subsidies “serve no other purpose than to artificially prop up the corn and ethanol industry.”

Journalist Robert Bryce has also written in Slate that ethanol will not reduce oil dependence (as environmental and ethanol lobby groups like to claim), arguing that it will lead to higher gas prices, requires more fossil energy to produce than it actually contains, and provides only two-thirds the energy of gasoline. According to Mr. Bryce, “Between 1995 and 2003, federal corn subsidies totaled $37.3 billion."

Incidentally, Bruce Stockman, director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, has accused Mercury Marine of having an “anti-ethanol agenda.” I suppose I would too if the government was artificially increasing my costs and potentially helping to destroy my business by pushing fuels that damaged my product.

What is undeniable, however, is that Mr. Stockman most certainly has a pro-ethanol agenda. The only difference, of course, is that Mercury isn’t presently in business at the expense of American taxpayers.

December 28, 2006