Automakers, Biofuels Groups Press EPA For High-Octane Fuel Standard

Source: By Stuart Parker, InsideEPA • Posted: Thursday, September 30, 2021

Automakers and biofuels advocates in comments on EPA’s proposed tougher light-duty vehicle greenhouse gas standards are urging the agency to create a high-octane fuel standard that would allow more fuel-efficient cars, and greatly boost ethanol sales, even though EPA largely avoided discussion of liquid fuels in its plan.

Supporters of the high-octane policy are acknowledging that EPA might have to pursue the idea in a separate rulemaking — along with other policies to benefit biofuels — apart from its plan to strengthen auto GHG standards for model years 2023-2026.

EPA’s July proposal to tighten GHG standards is coordinated with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) fuel economy plan. EPA has also said it will develop a second phase rule that would further tighten GHG limits in the longer-term, likely by relying on increased penetration of electric vehicles (EVs).

Biofuels groups for months have been lobbying EPA to include options such as a high-octane fuel standard or low-carbon fuel standard in its near-term GHG rule, but the proposal declines to do so. Rather, it focuses on other issues such as the standards’ overall stringency. Industry and environmentalists in their comments submitted ahead of a Sept. 27 deadline for public input are now staking out their positions for how tough the standards should be.

Biofuels sector groups say EPA’s proposal is a major missed opportunity to achieve near-term GHG savings, and reflects a Biden administration tendency to favor EVs over expanded biofuels use. Hopes of some biofuels advocates have now turned to the post-MY26 period.

Automakers, meanwhile, are not expressly backing ethanol, but are nonetheless pushing EPA to urgently craft a fuels rule that would allow for higher-octane engines that are more fuel-efficient. Biofuels are one obvious source of additional octane, although they are not the only option, automakers say.

In its comments, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a coalition of major automakers, says, “Given the timespan over which [internal combustion engine (ICE)] technology will continue to be available to new vehicle purchasers, and the years that those vehicles will remain in the field, improved liquid fuels are a critically important technology pathway. The largely ignored improved liquid fuels pathway will facilitate increased fuel efficiency, and reduced GHG and non-GHG emissions while the EV market continues to grow.”

Therefore, EPA should undertake a “comprehensive fuels rulemaking” that would: transition to a higher minimum-octane gasoline, with a minimum 95–98 research octane number (RON), to facilitate higher engine efficiency; and implement a nationwide low-carbon fuel standard to reduce GHG emissions.

The automakers also urge such a rule to “regulate the particulate forming tendency of market gasoline by eliminating the heavy aromatic fraction of gasoline,” thereby reducing particulate matter (PM) emissions from all ICE vehicles, equipment, and engines; and limit air toxics, such as olefins and aromatics, and their precursors from the fuel.

EPA should also further tighten the cap on sulfur content in fuel “at the refinery gate,” and ultimately for consumers, the automakers say.

The automakers call on EPA to cap summer vapor pressure of gasoline at 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi) or less “regardless of ethanol content,” to further reduce evaporative emissions.

‘Deeply Disappointed’

Many of these goals are shared by biofuels groups keen to convince EPA that their products are a viable means to reduce GHGs in the near-term. For example, the drive for a national high-octane standard is supported by the High Octane, Low Carbon Alliance, a lobby group headed by former top Senate Democrat Tom Daschle that includes the National Farmers Union, the Clean Fuels Development Coalition, the National Corn Growers Association, and the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA).

The group’s comments say it is “deeply disappointed by the EPA’s failure to at least reference high-octane, low-carbon fuels as one tool for advancing the reduction of GHG emissions and improving the fuel efficiency of light-duty passenger vehicles.”

“We strongly urge the agency to finalize the most stringent standards for [MY26], and we urge the agency to signal in the final rule its intentions for 2027 and beyond to enable automakers to optimize the benefits of higher-octane, lower-carbon fuels in both new and existing internal combustion engines,” the Daschle alliance adds.

“EPA can set a national minimum octane level of 98-100 RON to enable more-efficient high-compression engines and reduce GHG emissions. As a cleaner, lower-cost, and more fuel-efficient alternative to our fossil fuel supply, a national minimum octane level of 98-100 RON would open the door to increased ethanol blended fuels such as E30 fuel,” the group says.

The alliance further urges EPA to take a series of steps to remove regulatory obstacles to higher ethanol use, such as extending a 1-psi waiver from summertime Reid vapor pressure (RVP) restrictions from 10 percent ethanol fuel (E10) to E15 fuel and beyond to higher blends. This issue is crucial for the biofuels sector after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit this summer scrapped the Trump EPA’s extension of the waiver to E15, effectively blocking summer sales of the blend next year.

The alliance also calls on EPA to update its lifecycle modeling of ethanol’s GHG emissions to reflect studies showing the fuel’s lifecycle GHGs to be much lower than the agency now assumes.

Other Biofuels Policies

RFA’s comments on the vehicle rule endorse these positions, but also offer some other recommendations. The proposed rule “counts on broad deployment of high-compression ratio engines that will require high-octane fuel, but does nothing to ensure those high-octane fuels will actually be produced and available in the marketplace,” RFA says.

“The 1-psi RVP waiver — originally provided to expand the production and use of fuel ethanol — is now having the perverse effect of discouraging greater ethanol use in today’s gasoline market, and it is obstructing the successful implementation of important fuel and carbon reduction policies enacted since then, including the Renewable Fuel Standard,” RFA says.

EPA “should take action to effectively eliminate the relevance” of the waiver, RFA says, in a regulatory move limiting evaporative emissions from unblended gasoline that would create space for continued E15 sales in summertime while meeting federal air quality standards, thus side-stepping the D.C. Circuit’s ruling on the waiver of such standards.

The agency “should use its authority to mandate that refiners market lower-RVP blendstocks for conventional gasoline in the summertime (i.e., 8.0 psi in [federal air standards] attainment areas) thereby allowing retailers to market a full spectrum of renewable fuel blends appropriate for use in a range of vehicle technologies,” RFA says.

RFA also focuses on its argument that ethanol provides major lifecycle GHG benefits. It cites a recent Energy Department analysis finding that “average 2019-era corn ethanol reduced lifecycle GHG emissions by 44-52% compared to EPA’s 2005 petroleum baseline. In contrast, EPA’s analysis suggests 2022-era average corn ethanol will reduce lifecycle GHG emissions by only 21% relative to the 2005 baseline.” As such, RFA presses EPA to update its assumptions.

The American Coalition for Ethanol in its comments makes similar points. “Americans will continue to rely on billions upon billions of gallons of liquid fuels for decades to come. Therefore, this proposal must place much greater emphasis on improving the quality of liquid fuel and the role low carbon, high octane ethanol can play in making significant GHG reductions in the near-term.” The group backs a 98-100 RON national minimum octane standard, to be met with a blend of 25 to 30 percent ethanol.

Further, if the final rule does not establish a minimum octane standard for fuel, “EPA should immediately proceed to initiate a separate rulemaking on this issue,” the group says. — Stuart Parker (