E15 ethanol blend might soon be available year-round

Source: By Christopher Vondracek, Minneapolis Star Tribune • Posted: Thursday, December 15, 2022

Critics say the movement to frame ethanol as good for the planet is “greenwashing.” But political momentum has grown, citing rural economies and domestic energy.

Carlisle Ford Runge at the University of Minnesota says he’s grown tired, even bored, with arguing against the expansion of the nation’s ethanol industry.

“It’s an article of faith [among politicians] in the Corn Belt,” said Runge, a professor of economics at the U, on Tuesday. “And it’s bipartisan.”

But power brokers’ desire to dramatically expand ethanol to fill gas tanks of the nation’s vehicles has once again galvanized attention in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill to peel back an ozone protection regulation, which currently prohibits summer sales of a high-blend of ethanol called E15.

Klobuchar called the move good for drivers and farmers alike, arguing the bill will “decrease prices at the pump, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

And just last week, U.S. House Rep. Angie Craig, a Minnesota Democrat whose district includes suburbs and farm country south of the metro area introduced a companion measure into the House, proposing to make the fuel blend available year-round.

The Environmental Protection Agency approved E15 for sales in 2011, but only a couple thousand stations across 30 states sell it, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center.

Moreover, the blend is approved only for engines manufactured after 2001, and it’s largely sold only between Sept. 16 and May 31, due to concerns under the Clean Air Act that the fuel produces more carcinogenic particles in the air.

But this year, the Biden Administration allowed year-round sales to assuage farmeconomy fears caused by the war in Ukraine’s impact on the world’s energy supply.

The measure, which has bipartisan cosponsors, including Minnesota Republicans Michelle Fischbach and Brad Finstad, would permanently open the fuel to a market during the nation’s busy warm-weather months.

“E15 creates opportunities for our family farmers, supports growth in rural America and lowers prices at the pump for Minnesotans,” Craig said in a statement.

In 2018, the Trump administration similarly sought to approve year-round sales, downplaying environmental concerns about smog, when its EPA director allowed summertime E15. But a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., blocked that ruling, saying the EPA had overstepped its authority. Only Congress could make such a change.

Allowing higher ethanol blends in the summer has long been supported by agriculture lobbies. Last week, Craig announced support from a range of groups, including the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Renewable Fuel Association and Minnesota Farm Bureau, who said the measure will help rural economies, reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and limit air pollution.

In an April roundtable with Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, echoed some of the same sentiments, scratching his chin at why E10 (a blend of 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol) is allowable under the EPA’s regulations, but not, say, a blend of 10.5%.

“As a farmer, it’s hard understanding why E15 makes the smog issue in the summertime,” Wertish said in April. “We really need to push the EPA on that.”

The U.S. began encouraging the shift to gasoline-ethanol blends in the 1970s when the nation grappled with similar economic woes as today, including rampant inflation. Ethanol blends were seen as a way to offer a domestic source to compete with international oil cartels in the face of rising fuel costs.

While most of the gasoline burned in light-duty vehicles today in the U.S. contains ethanol, very few gas stations carry E15.

Many critics of the ethanol industry argue the science hasn’t changed.

“Ethanol is one of the most greenwashed fuels ever,” said Mark Z. Jacobson, an environmental engineering professor at Stanford University. “Don’t claim you’re helping the climate. Don’t claim you’re helping air pollution.”

In a 2007 paper, Jacobson suggested that the use of E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) would lead to more hospitalizations in urban areas such as Los Angeles.

In an interview with the Star Tribune, Jacobson said the smarter move would be to expand consumers’ access to electric vehicles, which lack the fuel-burning emissions associated with the internal combustion engine. He also cast doubt on clean-air arguments about higher ethanol blends.

“There is little difference between ethanol and gasoline — they’re both bad for air pollution,” Jacobson said.

The industry has batted back such criticism, pointing to friendlier studies. According to a 2014 study from Life Cycle Associates, a California-based consulting firm, while E15 increases emissions of cancer-causing toxins, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, it also displaces other toxins, such as the carcinogen benzene, compared with E10.

And with leaders of both political parties looking for a fix from Washington, it appears the nation’s gas pumps may soon be offering higher blends.

This past spring, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz joined other farm state governors in urging the Biden administration to extend year-round sales of E15. Just this month, the White House reportedly has taken up the request.