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Tom Purcell

Tom Purcell: Take ethanol mandate and shovel it, feds!

| Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, 7:00 p.m.
Jeffery Klingensmith, 62, of Allegheny Township clears the sidewalk in front of the First United Methodist Church in Leechburg on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Jeffery Klingensmith, 62, of Allegheny Township clears the sidewalk in front of the First United Methodist Church in Leechburg on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.

My back is sore from shoveling snow — and it's the federal government's fault.

Maybe I'd better explain.

We've been getting lots of snow in Pittsburgh of late. When it snows, I need to clear two driveways: mine, which is 50 yards long, and my father's, which is almost as big.

Since my father is 84 and having trouble with his knees, I gave him my magnificent new Toro snowblower; it's a convenience for me to have it in his garage, so I can clear his driveway in fewer than 15 minutes.

I purchased an equally powerful, used snowblower to tend to my own driveway. It helps me clear my monster driveway in fewer than 30 minutes or so. On a snowy winter day, I am able to clear both driveways in less than an hour — assuming I can get the snowblowers running.

But neither would start during the first heavy snow of the year. And that's thanks to the federal government.

Why? Because of ethanol, an alcohol, made mostly from corn, that can be mixed with gasoline to fuel automobiles and other engines.

Ethanol-blended gas became a government requirement in 2005, as part of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates that biofuels be added to transportation fuels in increasing amounts each year.

The concept appeared to be a winner at first.

Ethanol is something we can produce in abundance — reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

Ethanol burns cleaner than pure gasoline — that was supposed to be good for the environment.

But it didn't work out so well.

For starters, ethanol requires lots of fossil fuels to produce. Gas-burning tractors farm the fields that grow the corn. Lots of fuel is needed to fertilize, harvest and ship the corn.

What's worse, ethanol caused massive market shifts. Demand for corn increased significantly, driving up the cost of many items, such as popcorn, dairy products and beef (farm animals eat corn), and tequila (South American farmers ditched agave to grow corn, which caused an agave shortage).

Which brings us back to my snowblowers.

Marketplace reports that ethanol makes small engines run dangerously hot and can melt their many rubber components.

According to ATV Illustrated, “ethanol in fuel has a tendency to absorb water from the air and separate from the gasoline, sinking to the bottom of the gas tank, where it quickly degrades and creates gums, varnish and other insoluble debris that can plug fuel flow passages … and begin corroding the tank and engine intake parts, as well.”

Ethanol-blended gasoline degrades faster and more completely than pure gasoline. In the case of my snowblowers, severely degraded fuel from last season clogged the carburetors, injectors and filters so thoroughly, neither would start.

I know, now, that I should have shut off the gas valves and drained both snowblowers of gasoline when I was finished with them last season.

I know, now, that gasoline-stabilizer additives are essential for protecting my small engines from water absorption and separation.

I know I should have attempted to start both machines well before the first heavy snow covered both driveways.

But I also know that the federal government is the single biggest reason I have such a sore back from manually clearing two massive driveways.

To that end, it's time for Congress and the president to roll back the ethanol mandate — to correct its many unintended consequences. While they're at it, they'd better add one more item to the tax code: a deduction for the 200 bucks I had to spend to rebuild two lousy snowblower carburetors.

Tom Purcell, a freelance writer, lives in Library. His books include “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood” and “Wicked Is the Whiskey,” a Sean McClanahan mystery. Visit him on the web at Email him at:

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