Drivers may have to wait for E15

Source: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic • Posted: Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A blender pump is pictured at Jack’s Sinclair in Mitchell. Blender pumps are among the ways that E15, which is newly approved for use in some vehicles, could be delivered to consumers. (Chris Huber/Republic)

The recent Environmental Protection Agency approval of E15 for use in some vehicles means the blend of 15 percent ethanol could become available at gas stations. Maybe.

“It could be a day, or it could be 10 years,” said Dawna Leitzke, executive director of the South Dakota Petroleum and Propane Marketers Association. Until all steps in the formal approval process are complete, any blend of ethanol and unleaded gasoline higher than E10 can only be used in flex-fuel vehicles, she said.

E10 has been approved for use since 1979, and it will continue to be available, since not all vehicles are approved to use E15.

The fuels are made mostly from corn-based ethanol, and there are many ethanol plants in South Dakota and elsewhere in the Corn Belt. Ethanol backers support E15 as a way to grow ethanol production.

“E15 obviously was brought forth as an alternative to E10,” Leitzke said, “but that’s why the EPA has to go through all these steps to make sure E15 is an approved fuel. It’s not going to be legal until it has the blessing of the EPA.”

EPA testing approved the use of E15 for use in cars built in 2001 and later.

Clearance for health effects is just one step on the road to final approval, experts say. It is not a green light for sales. Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, predicts it will take several weeks for fuel companies and retailers to register and get approval to sell the higher gasoline/ethanol blend.

A plan must also be OK’d by the EPA to make sure E15 is used only in vehicles cleared to use it. That plan would include steps such as special labeling to warn motorists of the higher concentrations of ethanol.

That means the new E15 blend has been cleared for use in roughly 60 to 70 percent of the vehicles now on the road, said ACE’s Jennings. When fully approved, it could save drivers 12 to 15 cents per gallon versus straight gasoline, he said. Use of the fuel in unapproved vehicles is a violation of the Clean Air Act and users and dealers would be liable for civil penalties.

American Coalition for Ethanol Senior Vice President Ron Lamberty, who owns three filling stations himself, said the sale of E15 will likely be introduced in blender pumps at first, and separate pumps could be added as the blend’s popularity increases. Blender pumps offer motorists a choice of varying ethanol blends.

State Rep. Lance Carson, R-Mitchell, who formerly owned a filling station in Mitchell, said the installation of separate E15 pumps is unlikely and that E15 will probably be introduced in blender pumps.

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development in January created $950,000 in grant incentives for blender pump installations.

Under the plan, qualifying applicants will receive up to $25,000 to install their first blender pump and up to $10,000 to install additional blender pumps.

To date, the GOED has received funding applications totaling $955,000.

The state has allocated $755,000 in funding to 21 retail fuel stations for the installation of 44 ethanol blender pumps, said GOED spokeswoman Mary Lehecka Nelson. Of those 21 projects, three projects that have been completed have been reimbursed for a total of $135,000.

An additional six projects have applied for funding but can’t be awarded yet since the final 20 percent of this year’s program funding is competitively awarded. The first 80 percent of grant funds are awarded on a first-come, first=served basis.

A second round of applications is expected when another $950,000 in grant money becomes available in July.

Amstar, at 100 S. Main St. Mitchell, installed four ethanol blender pumps in September that handle E10, E30, E85, regular unleaded gas and diesel. The ethanol mixtures are blended by the pumps from a tank of E85 and a tank of unleaded gas.

Diesel, of course, has a separate tank.

Amstar has no immediate plans to add E15, but it would do so to meet customer demand, manager Brenda Mayer said.

To do that, however, the store would have to eliminate one of the existing ethanol choices and replace it with E15.

Mayer said E85 — which can only be used in flex-fuel vehicles — is the least expensive blend, but it also is the least popular option at her station.

The most popular sellers, in order, are E10 and regular unleaded gas, Mayer said. The most popular higher ethanol blend is E30, she said.

Mayer said customers prefer E30 because they say it gets better mileage than the E85 blend.

Dean Koch, the energy division manager for Central Farmers Co-op in Salem, said his store has one blender pump with slots for E20, E30, E50, E85 and regular unleaded gas.

Koch said there’s a possibility his company will drop the E20 blend in favor of E15.

E10 is his station’s largest seller, Koch said, followed by E30. He said the E85 blend is popular with racing enthusiasts in his area and also sells well.

AAA South Dakota is taking a conservative position and is not recommending the use of E15 in vehicles built before 2005, spokesman Mark Madeja said.

“AAA’s official stance is that we’re concerned about engine wear on older vehicles,” he said. “But we are very excited about an energy policy for America that makes sense, and that policy includes ethanol.”