Vilsack Showing Activist Tendencies

Published on: 09:02AM Feb 09, 2009
By Jim Wiesemeyer

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

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In interview with Bloomberg, says need for single food agency; says USDA working with EPA re: ethanol blend

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is showing some signs he will be an activist Ag chief rather than the so-called centrist tag given him by most commentators after his selection and confirmation to head the Ag Department.

In an interview with Bloomberg News, Vilsack said the recall of salmonella-tainted peanut products shows the need to modernize the U.S. food safety system and ultimately create a single inspection agency. “We need a single agency that’s working in a modern framework,” Vilsack said. “We don’t have that today.”

President Barack Obama has pledged a greater emphasis on food safety, but Vilsack told Bloomberg he does not expect Congress to approve a single food agency this year.

Here we go again on ethanol blend percentage. The former Bush administration had worked for months on an ethanol industry push to increase the maximum ethanol blend rate for non-flex fuel vehicles from the current 10% rate to 12% or so. When the Bush team failed to get that announced in its waning days in office, most expected the matter to at least be discussed if not linger in the Obama administration.

Vilsack told Bloomberg that USDA is in discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency about raising the amount of corn-based ethanol blended into the U.S. gasoline supply. “I do think it’s important for us to look for strategies to make sure the infrastructure of the ethanol industry is preserved, because it is a key component to this new energy future the president’s laid out,” Vilsack said.

But a new wrinkle has emerged on the blend percentage issue relative to fuel-dispensing pumps. The American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) has written a letter to Underwriters Laboratories asking for an explanation of why UL arbitrarily changed its position on the ability of standard gasoline pumps to handle blends of ethanol up to 15%.

For years the fuel marketing community has understood the standard "UL 87" to cover the use of up to 15% ethanol in standard gasoline pumps. But in a January 7 statement, UL now says that those pumps are only certified to handle up to 10% ethanol.

Following is the text of the ACE letter to UL: 

February 4, 2009

Mr. August Schaefer
Underwriters Laboratories Inc.
333 Pfingsten Road
Northbrook, IL 60062-2096

Dear Mr. Schaefer:

On behalf of the members of the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), I am writing to express our concern that Underwriters Laboratories has recently made what appears to be an arbitrary change to the “UL 87” standard. That standard, which has been relied upon by the ethanol industry, pump manufacturers, and many petroleum marketers, has consistently been interpreted as allowing the use of up to 15 percent ethanol in standard gasoline dispensing equipment. Recent statements by UL that have changed the meaning of the standard without any accompanying change in data, coupled with similar action by UL two-and-a-half years ago regarding E85, have caused many within the ethanol industry to question whether UL – an organization built on a reputation of precision and impartiality – has at very least treated ethanol issues with carelessness and at times appears to have an anti-ethanol bias.

We are aware that UL 87 does not specifically mention E15 (nor does it mention E10); however, UL 87 does reference a number of underlying standards that clearly use phrases such as “ethanol does not exceed 15 percent,” and “approved for gasoline/ethanol blends up to 15 percent ethanol” and “gasoline with up to 15 percent ethanol.” Consistent with those “up to E15” definitions are the many characterizations of the new E85 standard as covering fuel blends above 15 percent ethanol. In fact, the first report in what has become standard UL87A clearly stated “Current dispensing equipment Listings are limited to fuels with a maximum 15 percent alcohol.”

Yet even the explanation of E15 as a fuel used for a safety margin flies in the face of all of the other testing UL has done in its 125 years of existence. If an extension cord is tested by UL at 25 amps to provide a safety margin for its approved use at 15 amps, the approval would not say “up to 25 amps.” If a 60 watt light bulb was tested at 100 watts to provide safety for the user, the bulb would not carry a 100 watt seal of approval. It stands to reason that UL would not say “up to 15 percent ethanol” when it really meant “up to 10 percent ethanol.” It also stands to reason that if there were any safety hazards discovered during the testing of equipment at E15, the standard would have been written with clear language limiting ethanol use to 10 percent.

This latest arbitrary change adds to the frustration the ethanol industry has felt over similar treatment of ethanol issues. When it declared that no standard existed for E85, UL also stated that there had been no “reports of corrosion,” “no field incidents,” and “no reported safety issues,” yet a very stringent new standard for E85 equipment was developed. Pump manufacturers recently pointed out to ACE that that although their equipment has passed UL’s E85 dispenser tests, they will not receive the UL mark for that part of the fueling system until all parts in the entire system have been tested and approved. Those manufacturers say that this procedure is unique to E85 equipment. As a result of those issues, the current E15 issue, and the timing of the announcements about both, some now question whether UL has been unduly influenced to be more critical of ethanol. Lack of data backing up the E15 standard reversal, coupled with the statement that UL is working with the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the impact of using higher ethanol blends in vehicles and engine system adds to questions of influence.

We trust that is not the case, and we assure you that the ethanol industry has no interest in dispensing our fuel in a way that is unsafe or potentially harmful to vehicles. With many years of experience in selling blends of up to 85 percent ethanol in dispensers originally approved only for blends up to 15 percent, we believe that those dispensers can accommodate the blends UL’s original standards clearly state they can safely dispense. If there is existing data that suggests this is not the case, it should have been presented in UL’s joint statement with the U.S. Department of Energy in December 2008. Barring that, UL should stand by its clear, consistent statements that pumps with the UL label are approved for blends up to 15 percent ethanol. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your response.


Ron Lamberty
Vice President / Market Development
American Coalition for Ethanol

Comments: I assume Vilsack would not have made the single-food agency comment without having vetted that with others in the Obama administration. As for the ethanol blend issue, the EPA makes that decision, not USDA, but both USDA and the Energy Department will or should have significant input into the final decision. But it will be important to see EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's comments on that matter.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.