You may not know, and ideally would never have to know, that gasoline is different in the winter and summer. But people who maintain small engines like mowers or old cars, or even people who care about long-term maintenance on regular cars, have to care now because of a move made last summer by the Biden administration to use the winter ethanol mix of gas in the summer on an emergency basis.
To alleviate a looming energy crisis, the White House threw out the ordinary rules for what kind of gas comes out of pumps during the summer and ran with wintertime gas, which has more ethanol, all through the balmy months. Now that it’s getting cold again, the consequences of this short-term thinking are going to be felt by people whom perhaps politicians feel comfortable ignoring. Millions of people may set out to turn on the mower next spring and find the darn thing just won’t start.
To explain: U.S. refiners make a different blend for the warmer and colder months because of the way ethanol evaporates and the emissions it produces. But this past year, the administration let the higher levels of ethanol typically used in the wintertime go all summer. What’s ethanol? Ethanol is a type of alcohol made from corn and other biomass that’s added to most U.S. gas — but with strict limits, typically a 10% (E10) maximum in the summertime. The advantage of adding ethanol to plain old gasoline is that it doesn’t have to be pumped out of the ground — not to mention that it keeps certain constituencies, including corn farmers in the key early voting swing state of Iowa, happy.
Ethanol burns hotter than gasoline, and it has the capacity to corrode plastic O-rings and rubber carburetor parts. For small engines such as outboard motors, gas-powered lawn equipment, and the like, it’s a killer. Recreational equipment, snowblowers, lawn mowers, string trimmers, chain saws, etc. — all were newly imperiled by the Biden administration’s short-term move. Millions of people possess a small arsenal of these machines, and their maintenance is of paramount concern to them. Those people have rejected urbanism, and America’s urbanist politicians have rejected them in turn.
Not caring about small engines and the people who operate them is a function of a political and cultural battle that tracks divisions between urban and rural, Left and Right. It’s reasonable to wonder whether the administration believes that making life that much harder on people with outdoor equipment is a nasty side effect of the new rule or a fringe benefit. After all, advocates of a combustionless future rarely hide their contempt for their neighbors who rely on these machines.
“Small gas engines are not only bad for our environment and contributing to our climate crisis. They can cause asthma and other health issues for workers who use them,” said California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, co-sponsor of a new law that will ban the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment beginning in 2024. New York, New Jersey, and Illinois are considering similar measures.
Banning this equipment isn’t just the preoccupation of curtain twitchers who resent their intrusion into “the lovely sounds of spring, summer, and fall,” as USA Today contributor Ellie Gruber complained. “There is a real danger to our health from this constant noise and gas emissions.” Prohibitions on their use are, therefore, an act of social justice. Leaf blowers, in particular, push dust and dirt into the air at “200 miles per hour,” the Maryland Daily Record continued, thereby “eroding soil and habitats and spreading disease-causing mold and fecal matter.” As the author Michael Shapiro observed, the landscaping companies that rely on migrant labor are putting their marginalized contractors at risk “with leaf blowers just inches from their lungs and ears.”
It’s not just nosy NIMBYs bothered by noise driving this crusade. There’s a moral component to their cause. “An hour of using a gas-powered leaf blower produces enough emissions that it’s basically equal to driving from L.A. to Denver in a 2017 Toyota Camry,” said San Anselmo, California, Mayor Alexis Fineman after her city banned all gas-powered landscape equipment.
Fineman may have understated the case. One regularly cited study contends that 30 minutes of yardwork with a gas leaf blower produces as many hydrocarbon emissions as driving a pickup truck from Texas to Alaska. As New Jersey-based writer Jessica Stolzberg wrote for the New York Times, the “simplicity and speed of personal decision” is the only obstacle to adopting electric alternatives to traditional landscaping tools.
The application of theoretical concepts and metaphysical arguments against gas-powered lawn equipment serves to overcome the primary argument in their favor: They work. Battery-powered alternatives are useful for small jobs — mowing a quarter-acre on a suburban plot. But try mowing or blowing an acre or more, and you’ll quickly find that you need to devote much more time and vastly more resources to the job.
What three gallons of regular could achieve in two hours now consumes half a day’s time and requires a cascade of lithium-ion batteries, which come from a polluting, extractive industry of their own. And the electric equivalent of these common tools can cost more than twice as much.
These trade-offs are almost never considered by advocates of the imposition of ordinances that might make sense in Marin County on the nation as a whole. Indeed, imposing these trade-offs on people who selfishly choose the liberty of space over the communalism of density is a fitting punishment for those who cling bitterly to their string trimmer and gas canister.
Relative levels of ethanol in gasoline are unlikely to grab headlines like culture warring over identity or migration, but they affect real lives in tangible ways. The attack on small engines is an attack on the ethos that prevails roughly 40 minutes outside every major metropolitan area in the nation. If successful, it threatens to impose a minor inconvenience on roughly half the country. But it is a minor inconvenience that contributes to the unavoidable conclusion that convenience itself has become the target of America’s social engineers.
Philosophers have argued for millennia about the so-called sorites paradox, which asks exactly how many grains you have to pile up before it becomes a heap. Who knows, exactly? But it’s somewhere. The cumulative effect of a thousand small burdens should not be underestimated. Casually applied mandates that serve the political needs of parties but not the needs of people who live far away from where legislatures meet are already ruining engines, and they are coming for the whole mower. The heaps on voters’ yards will not go unnoticed.
Noah Rothman is the associate editor of Commentary. His new book is The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun.