The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reported that “damning” scientific evidence about the dangers to cars, their owners and the environment from ethanol-laced petrol is in a report being withheld by Australia’s federal government.

The newspaper said the report shows that blends of 20% ethanol, sold in about 200 outlets in New South Wales state, cause corrosion of fuel system components, “potentially hazardous” fuel leaks and sharp increases in some pollutant emissions.

While ethanol-blend fuels were slightly cheaper than pure petrol, a car would travel about 7% less distance on a 20% blend, resulting in poorer fuel economy, the SMH said.

The newspaper said the Australian government received the report three weeks ago, yet continued to insist there is no scientific evidence to justify a legal limit on the amount of ethanol which can be blended, or even compulsory disclosure of ethanol levels in petrol.

The SMH said it had obtained a study, commissioned by the Environment Department from the Orbital Engine Company, that reviews scientific research on the effects of high concentrations of ethanol.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the report says ethanol can corrode metal parts, leading to damage to carburettors, fuel pumps, lines and filters, and petrol tanks, and also causes perishing of plastic and increases emissions of nitrogen oxides and toxic aldehydes.

Ethanol can also cause cold-starting problems, engine “knocking” [pre-ignition] and slower acceleration, the SMH report added.

The SMH said Australian car makers, motoring and consumer organisations and The Petroleum Institute have lobbied for a year for a 10% cap on ethanol and noted that car makers will not honour warranties on vehicles run on higher concentrations.

The newspaper also said that government documents leaked to the parliamentary opposition show that two government departments – Environment and Agriculture, and Fisheries and Forestry – are also pushing for a 10% limit, at least pending further research.

The SMH said that the head of the NRMA motoring organisation has demanded that the results of government sampling of petrol stations for tax purposes – which identifies the type of fuel sold – be released to enable motorists to decide where to fill up.

According to the report, he also demanded that the federal government tell the public where petrol with high ethanol content is sold and added that some service stations connected to major fuel companies had “deceived” motorists.

The Sydney Morning Herald said all Australian interest groups want ethanol levels capped at 10%, except the Manildra group, which makes nearly all the country’s ethanol and markets it largely through independent service stations at concentrations of up to 20%.

The newspaper noted that Manildra is a major donor to the Liberal Party and its principal, Dick Honan, is a friend of prime minister John Howard.

Ethanol is only competitive with petrol because of a 38 cents-per-litre producer subsidy introduced at Howard’s behest in September, the Sydney Morning Herald added.

The newspaper cited a spokeswoman for Australia’s environment minister as saying that the department was still considering the report and adding that in many areas there was insufficient or conflicting evidence indicating that a detailed testing program was warranted.