Blocked By EPA, Biofuels Group Asks OMB For Octane Limit In Vehicle Rule

Source: By Stuart Parker, Inside EPA • Posted: Monday, July 12, 2021

A coalition of biofuels and farm groups, led by former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), is poised to press White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials to include a high-octane standard to boost fuel economy in EPA’s upcoming light-duty vehicle rules after a key agency official appeared to reject the request.

Daschle, who chairs the High Octane, Low Carbon (HOLC) Alliance, a group formed in 2016, is slated to meet with EPA and OMB officials July 13 to make the group’s case to promote higher blends of ethanol in fuel as part of the agency’s forthcoming proposal for tighter light-duty vehicle greenhouse gas standards.

But he could face an uphill battle as EPA’s acting air chief Joe Goffman appears to have already rejected a key argument, according to a June 8 letter to Goffman that reflects their talks from an earlier meeting.

“During our meeting, you suggested that proposing a higher-octane gasoline standard in the [vehicle GHG rule] — in order to use [high-octane] blends to displace carbon-intensive, carcinogenic aromatic compounds as Congress has required — would inject ‘new issues’ into the rulemaking process. We respectfully, but strongly, disagree,” he wrote.

“Clean high octane fuels that enable greater fuel economy while reducing CO2 could not be more relevant to this rule. In fact, the original GHG rule’s legal justifications invoked the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the very law in which Congress banned leaded gasoline and directed EPA to replace high carbon, toxic aromatics with low carbon, safe, ‘clean octane’ ethanol,” Daschle writes.

Octane is a measure of fuels’ ability to withstand compression before igniting, a key feature used to reduce engine knock. The biofuels sector has long argued that higher ethanol blends, which provide higher octane ratings, allow for high-efficiency engines that use less fuel and emit fewer pollutants.

The HOLC Alliance seeks an octane standard as high as research octane number (RON) 98 or 100, as compared to a national standard of around 87 for most regular gasoline now on sale. This could be achieved by a 30 percent ethanol blend (E30), to replace the current standard E10 blend.

But the alliance is also presenting its case for a high-octane standard in terms of limiting conventional air pollution by using more ethanol and fewer aromatic volatile compounds as fuel additives to prevent premature combustion of fuel. Aromatic compounds are carcinogenic, and their replacement with ethanol can result in reduced cancer risks, recent biofuels industry-sponsored studies have found.

In a July 8 interview with Inside EPA, Daschle says “we just challenge the assertion” from Goffman “that this is something new,” when in fact a high-octane fuel standard has been under discussion for years. EPA could have allowed for higher ethanol blends in Obama-era fuel efficiency rules, Daschle says, adding that EPA has ample legal authority to do so under the Clean Air Act.

EPA’s forthcoming rule, expected to be released by the end of the month, would address GHG limits through model year 2026, with Biden officials viewing it as a quick effort to reverse the Trump rollback of Obama-era standards.

The agency has long studied octane issues in relation to the vehicle rules. For example, EPA fuel programs chief Paul Machiele told a 2015 event that the agency likely has authority to require higher octane levels but that the issue is “complicated” and that it would not occur until after MY25, the original end date of the Obama rules.

Biden officials are also planning a follow-on auto GHG rule that reportedly could extend out to MY32 and would impose more aggressive targets on automakers. That measure is expected to focus heavily on encouraging electric vehicles (EVs), though in theory it could also include an octane standard for conventional vehicles.

‘Extraordinary Problem’

But Daschle argues the near-term auto rule “is the most immediate and meaningful way that we can address this extraordinary problem” of vehicle emissions, including GHGs but also conventional air pollutants. While vehicle GHG emissions are widely discussed, from a health perspective, “the big problem is aromatic hydrocarbons” in petroleum-based fuel.

Daschle says that so far, EPA is focused on engine technologies in the forthcoming vehicles rule, but is neglecting the intrinsically related role of fuels, calling this position “a missed opportunity.”

He says his group has had “a lot of meetings with people in the administration,” including talks with other agencies involved in the discussion over fuel efficiency rules such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Department of Energy (DOE), characterizing the talks as positive.

And he also notes a host of recent studies on the harmful effects of particulate matter (PM), formed from vehicle exhaust, especially on poor and minority communities, and pushes high ethanol blends as one way to help reduce such emissions.

In addition to EPA, backers have pressed California officials to impose octane requirements in the absence of federal action, though state officials have previously said they were waiting for additional research into the topic through DOE’s “Co-Optima Project,” which seeks to develop improved fuels and engines to achieve GHG cuts.

Daschle’s advocacy is part of a broader drive to present biofuels as near- and medium-term means of curbing GHGs, as the Biden administration promotes EV policies. The alliance notes that most projections by DOE and others point toward decades of continued liquid fuel use, and a long rollout for electric charging infrastructure, leaving an important role for biofuels.

A recent shift in the auto industry’s position is likely helpful to his cause, Daschle says, pointing to a June 11 letter to his group from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, comprising much of the sector.

“Use of high octane, low carbon liquid fuels supports ongoing efforts to improve air quality and can provide an important bridge in reducing emissions in low-income communities during the transition to expanded vehicle electrification,” the automakers say.

Health Benefits

In his letter to Goffman, Daschle seeks to underscore the health benefits from a high octane standard, which he says are “central to EPA’s mission, with the strongest impact in dense urban communities, which is a focus of the administration’s environmental justice concerns.”

“Given the role of aromatic hydrocarbons in [PM] formation, and given the propensity of [gasoline direct injection, or GDI] engines to increase emissions of [ultrafine particles, or UFPs], EPA’s strategies for regulating fine particle pollution in urban areas are doomed to failure unless they significantly reduce gasoline aromatics,” Daschle says.

Daschle’s letter makes reference to a provision of the Clean Air Act as amended in 1990 that requires EPA to study air toxics from vehicles, under section 202(l). The provision says that, “[w]ithin 54 months after November 15, 1990, the Administrator shall, based on the study under paragraph (1), promulgate (and from time to time revise) regulations . . . containing reasonable requirements to control hazardous air pollutants from motor vehicles and motor vehicle fuels.”

The regulations “shall contain standards for such fuels or vehicles, or both, which the Administrator determines reflect the greatest degree of emission reduction achievable through the application of technology which will be available, taking into consideration” other emissions standards, “the availability and costs of the technology, and noise, energy, and safety factors, and lead time.” The regulations “shall, at a minimum, apply to emissions of benzene and formaldehyde,” the air law says.

Daschle writes that EPA as long ago as 2007 said it would be “compelled” to revisit section 202(l) if a connection was shown between gasoline aromatics and secondary organic aerosols. “That connection has now been demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt, yet the agency has failed to act,” he writes.

— Stuart Parker (