EPA’s new super fuel could spell trouble for ethanol

Source: By John Siciliano, Washington Examiner • Posted: Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Environmental Protection Agency is about to allow a new renewable fuel to be sold at the pump, which could revolutionize the fuel business while eliminating the use of corn ethanol in gasoline altogether.

For some, the prospects of no longer having to use ethanol under the EPA’s renewable fuel mandate is reason enough to support the new super fuel.

“We started to look at what would be an alternative, rather than just say ‘no, no, no, we don’t like ethanol,’” said John McKnight, senior vice president for environmental policy with the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

His trade group opposes moving to higher levels of ethanol under EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard because of the damage the fuel causes to marine engines that power everything from 75-foot yachts to fishing boats and jet skis. Some of McKnight’s members include engine makers Volvo, Honda, Kawasaki, Caterpillar, Cummins and Mercury.

“Is there something that’s out there that’s better?” was the question McKnight asked about 10 years ago.

The answer was “biobutanol,” the name given to the renewable form of isobutanol.

His group, with help from the Department of Energy and Coast Guard, have been studying the benefits of the fuel for nearly a decade, as the company Gevo and oil giant BP were developing the fuel.

The Coast Guard’s research division advised a few years ago that the branch closely “monitor the commercial production capability of biobutanol” as it enters the market and, once available, begin adding it as a requirement when buying new engines.

BP, in a partnership global chemical giant DuPont, is preparing to introduce the fuel commercially, with production ramping up in the coming months.

The EPA is expected to soon approve an application to sell BP’s biobutanol as a 16-percent gasoline blend.

The agency, in its proposal to approve the fuel, called it an “attractive option” to meet the Renewable Fuel Standard, because of its superior qualities compared to conventional corn ethanol, including its higher energy density.

But there is also the prospect of the fuel taking off on a large scale. Because of that, the EPA put a notice in the Federal Register asking for public comment. The agency is reviewing the comments now.

Ethanol and biobutanol are alcohol fuels derived from fermenting corn. But biobutanol is not corrosive like ethanol and behaves more like conventional gasoline. That means cars, boats and other machines that require gasoline can use it at high levels without experiencing problems.

The Energy Department lists four main benefits of the fuel. It has a “higher energy content” than most gasoline alternatives such as ethanol. It has lower Reid Vapor Pressure than ethanol, which means lower fuel volatility and emissions. It also provides for “Increased energy security” because it can be produced “domestically from a variety of feedstocks, while creating U.S. jobs.” Finally, it reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

McKnight, who is pushing the new fuel, said increasing the year-round use of 15-percent ethanol blends from the current 10 percent, as President Trump recently endorsed, is particularly damaging to marine engines.

McKnight helped conduct a number of tests on the effects of 15-percent ethanol blends on the engines in collaboration with the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

“We have pictures. They just blew up,” he said. “I mean, they could not run through a normal durability cycle on E15.”

Argonne and the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory started a multi-year effort with Gevo last year to test the octane benefits the fuel provides when blended in gasoline.

Tom Wallner, head of the transportation research center at Argonne, said the lab has conducted several research projects on the fuel and found it’s “ideally suited” to blend with gasoline. Its testing was on both automotive and off-road use of biobutanol.

But more than marine manufacturers are keeping an eye on the fuel. The military, airlines, the oil industry and other sectors all are waiting to see what the fuel can do once it is ready to compete with ethanol.

Bringing a new fuel into the market is a “long-term game,” but one that could be a big win for both the oil industry and ethanol producers, said Jan Koninckx, CEO of Butamax, the biobutanol producer that is the 50-50 joint venture between BP and DuPont.

Biobutanol, sometimes called a “drop-in” fuel, because it can easily be put into the nation’s fuel supply without any harmful effects, has none of the drawbacks of conventional corn-based ethanol, Koninckx said.

A top reason to use the fuel is that it is less corrosive than ethanol.

“It is easier to deal with and is offering the ethanol industry a diversification option … to make a fuel product that is easier to use,” Koninckx said.

For example, ethanol cannot be shipped in steel pipelines, because it causes them to corrode. Only plastic pipelines can be used, which is not practical for long distances. So it currently is transported by rail and barges.

But biobutanol can be shipped with gasoline and diesel fuel through conventional steel pipes.

The fuel also packs more power than ethanol, giving it an energy profile that more closely resembles gasoline. Ethanol is less energy dense, making cars less fuel efficient when it is added to gasoline.

Koninckx says biobutanol has the potential to replace ethanol, making a 16-percent biobutanol blend the new national fuel. However, he says his company isn’t looking to do that.

Biobutanol is the “next step” biofuel, he said, and will be offered as an “upgrade” to existing corn-ethanol facilities.

The fuel can help oil refiners, because biobutanol generates more renewable identification number credits, or RINs, under the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard program since it is considered an advanced biofuel, he said.

The bigger credit would help smaller, independent oil refiners meet the fuel mandate, because they must buy the credits to comply with the RFS since they don’t have the infrastructure to blend biofuels.

Mike McAdams, president and CEO of the Advanced Biofuels Association, which represents BP and other biobutanol producers such as the company Gevo, said the new fuel would help lower the price of RINs.

“I’m kind of surprised EPA hadn’t pushed for that, because they are looking for more RINs to drive the price down,” McAdams said.

“The significant thing from my view is, in the last 18 months it’s been very hard to get new fuels approved and new pathways approved under this administration,” McAdams said. “We would be delighted to see any movement at all on new fuels and pathways under this administration.”

The RFS program is dominated by corn ethanol, which comprises about 15 billion gallons of the renewable fuel refiners must blend annually. The remaining portion of the total 36 billion gallons that refiners must blend by 2022 will have to come from more advanced fuels such as biobutanol. More advanced fuels are just starting to be produced, but at relatively low levels.

Companies such as Gevo, which isn’t profitable, also stand to benefit from the EPA’s approval, according to a quarterly report issued last month by the company.

Gevo’s fuel is being used in some niche markets ahead of the EPA decision. It immediately found a market providing fuel for marine engines in Texas.

“On the marine side, it’s a real premium over ethanol,” McAdams said.

A recent supply agreement signed by the company with a Texas fuel supplier expanded isobutanol sales to include a 300-mile radius around Houston, including several major Texas cities as well as Oklahoma and Louisiana.

The company’s fuel was also used in a large test demonstration with eight airlines. The ASTM global standards board recently approved the use of a 50-percent isobutanol fuel for jet aircraft. That’s a market that ethanol is not able to penetrate.

The ethanol industry is not opposing the introduction of more biobutanol into the fuel system, since both fuels benefit from the Renewable Fuel Standard.

“Like bio-derived ethanol, biobutanol is a renewable alcohol that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and offers other environmental benefits,” Bob Dinneen, the president of the Renewable Fuels Association, the lead trade association for the ethanol industry, wrote in comments to the EPA. “As such, we believe biobutanol may have the potential to serve as a cost-effective tool for helping to meet renewable fuel and advanced biofuel blending obligations under the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

Aides to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, a major ethanol supporter from the corn-growing state of Iowa, are still studying the proposal. Nevertheless, an aide noted that the senator “has been clear” on where he stands about the renewable fuel program and the EPA’s continued support for corn farmers.