EPA signals it will start looking at mandating higher octane gasoline

Source: By Richard Truett, Automotive News • Posted: Thursday, August 25, 2016

Raising the octane in gasoline — seen as a way to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions in today’s high-tech turbocharged, direct-injected engines — looks like it will get some attention from the EPA.

That’s the good news.

Now for the bad: It’s going to take a while.

Higher octane gasoline likely won’t be available until the next set of fuel economy and emissions standards take effect after 2025. The deliberations about how high to raise octane are still probably a few years off. But the lobbying is starting to gain traction.

Dan Nicholson, General Motors’ vice president of global propulsion systems, told me recently he could boost fuel economy in most engines by about 5 percent if America had the same higher octane gasoline as Europe. Nicholson has raised the issue at industry events as have his counterparts at Ford, Fiat Chrysler and other automakers.

Octane, you may recall, is a measure of how much compression fuel can withstand before it ignites. High-compression engines deliver more power, but need high-octane fuel.

Europe as the model

In Germany for example, regular gasoline is usually 95 octane while premium is 100, based on the RON (research octane number) scale. The octane in American gasoline is calculated differently and is the average of the RON and MON (motor octane number). Generally, American grades of fuel are 4 to 6 octane lower than comparable grades of European gasoline.

Automakers here want higher octane so that they can raise the compression ratio of engines and continue increasing power output. Higher output lets engineers further reduce engine size, which also cuts vehicle weight. Ford’s EcoBoost engines, particularly those used in the F-150 pickup, show what’s possible. Its new generation 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 makes more power than many of Ford’s older big block V-8s.

During a recent auto industry conference in Traverse City, Mich., Chris Grundler, director of the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality, said the agency recognizes fuels have a role to play in enabling automakers to meet tougher fuel economy and emissions regulations.

He said the agency has been collecting data about the potential for higher octane gasoline to reduce emissions.

Speaking during a question-and-answer session at the end of a panel discussion on fuel economy, here’s what Grundler had to say about octane:

“After 2025, we should talk about what the future fuels should look like and what is the optimum mix of vehicle and fuel technologies. It is not as simple as the automakers might think it is under the law, and we have to follow the law. We have had requests to regulate octane for many years.”

But Grundler said the agency couldn’t regulate octane until 2007, when the Supreme Court decided that greenhouse gases are harmful. And even then, it wasn’t as easy as asking experts to settle on a new higher octane rating.

Says Grundler: “There are some provisos. For us to intervene and set fuel standards, we need to show that there is an air quality benefit or that, absent regulations, that it is somehow inhibiting the after-treatment or other parts of the vehicle. And that the benefits outweigh the costs.”

After the current set of fuel economy standards are fully phased in, it could be easier for the EPA to make its case for higher octane gasoline. This time it will very likely have the powerful California Air Resources Board on its side.

“[Octane] will have to be part of the conversation,” said Mike McCarthy, CARB’s chief technology officer. “I think it has to be on the table,” he said at Traverse City.

You might think that adding octane is just a simple matter of dumping more ethanol into the mix. It’s not.

While adding ethanol does bump up octane, it also lowers fuel economy because the ethanol that replaces gasoline is less energy dense. Also, higher concentrations of ethanol require automakers to make changes to fuel systems. Edmunds conducted a test with a flexible fuel Chevy truck that shows the differences, not just in fuel economy, but also in costs, using regular gasoline vs. E85, which contains 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent enthanol.

Not on bandwagon

Even though senior powertrain executives such as Nicholson say they need higher octane fuel to help them increase engine efficiency, you don’t usually hear automakers themselves lobbying loudly for it, except at industry conferences and dinners with reporters. Premium fuel costs around 53 cents more per gallon than regular in many parts of the country — a fact that has many motorists grumbling. Automakers don’t want to force higher fuel prices on their customers.

Much of the price difference for premium gasoline is because it’s more costly to refine and because oil companies produce premium fuel at much lower volume than regular. But if the EPA does mandate higher octane gasoline, I think the cost difference between regular and premium will evaporate pretty quickly. And there is a precedent.

When the EPA decided to dramatically reduce sulfur in diesel fuel a decade ago, the oil industry cried foul, saying diesel prices would increase because of the added expense of refining the cleaner fuel. Today, diesel in most areas costs less than regular gasoline.

When octane is addressed, the EPA will hear from automakers, refiners, the ethanol industry, environmental groups, consumer groups and others — none of which want their business models and lives disrupted.

You can bet the situation will be a combustible one.