Ethanol Group Claims EPA ‘Collusion’ With Oil Sector Over Fuel Air Study 

Source: By Stuart Parker, Inside EPA • Posted: Thursday, November 10, 2016

Ehanol advocates are claiming that EPA emails released as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit show the agency’s “collusion” with the oil sector in crafting a study that finds ethanol increases vehicle emissions, faulting both the study and a resulting air model that the advocates claim lead to inaccurate findings.

The pro-ethanol Urban Air Initiative (UAI) is citing the emails in its call for EPA to revise the Motor Vehicle Emissions Simulator (MOVES) computer model, used by the agency and state regulators to estimate air pollution from vehicles for regulatory purposes. They say they plan to petition EPA soon to change the model to remove the flawed conclusions on ethanol emissions, which the group fears could discourage use of ethanol fuel.

UAI and others argue that the MOVES model overestimates nitrogen oxides (NOx) as a result of the underlying fuel study, and wrongly attributes higher ethanol blends with increased pollution, when other studies show that the opposite is true.

The emails appear to show EPA relying heavily on the oil sector in crafting the study, known as the EPAct study, which UAI said led to skewed findings claiming higher emissions from ethanol. The American Petroleum Institute (API), representing the oil industry, has previously questioned the environmental benefits of ethanol and warned of its potential harm to engines.

Although API has previously vigorously denied any undue oil sector influence on the study, UAI claims that the emails contradict that claim and plans to seek corrections to the study in terms of its use for the MOVES model. “We at Urban Air Initiative are currently preparing a request for correction of information” for the model, says a UAI source. That request will “detail the defects in the MOVES model and the underlying impact of the EPAct study. The request for correction will include details we gathered from the EPA emails. We intend to file it before the end of the year.”

Spokespeople for EPA and API did not respond to requests for comment by press time, though then-API Downstream Group Director Bob Greco told Inside EPA in a November 2014 interview that UAI’s attacks on the study “grossly misrepresented” the analysis at issue, and that the study was just part of a broader research effort.

UAI and others first sought to change the MOVES model by suing over it in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, challenging an an October 2014 Federal Register notice of data availability (NODA) announcing the availability of the 2014 version of MOVES for regulatory use. The petitioners asserted that oil industry consultants intentionally influenced the design of the EPAct study to exaggerate pollution from ethanol, by subjecting the test fuels to unrealistic conditions not reflective of real-world ethanol blending at the pump.

However, a three-judge panel in the case, State of Kansas, et al. v. EPA — which also included Kansas, Nebraska and the Energy Future Coalition as petitioners — rejected the suit. The court found the petitioners could not show injury from the decision, and hence they lacked standing to sue over the notice.

UAI and Energy Future Coalition also sued EPA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force issuance of the requested emails and other information pertinent to the EPAct study, after EPA was slow to respond.

As a result of a court order, EPA is releasing the emails on a schedule that will be complete next year.

‘Deeply Flawed’ 

According to an Oct. 31 memo written by law firm Boyden Gray and Associates, working on behalf of UAI, “EPA relied heavily on the oil industry to design the test fuels used in an influential and deeply flawed fuel effects study known as the EPAct study. EPA invited this involvement from oil industry employees and from the Coordinating

Research Council (‘CRC’), a group funded by the oil industry. In exchange, EPA sought and received valuable in-kind support from the oil industry.”

Citing the emails released as a result of the FOIA suit, the memo says, “This new evidence of collusion between EPA and Chevron, BP, and CRC is important, because EPA used the results of the EPAct study to update its vehicular emissions model, MOVES2014. As a result of the oil industry’s influence, the model reports that ethanol increases emissions of many pollutants, even though other studies have demonstrated the opposite.”

The EPAct study has been shown to be biased against ethanol by design, when compared with other studies on the same topic, critics claim. “The documents UAI has obtained reveal the source of that bias — the petroleum industry’s direct influence on the design of the EPAct study’s test fuels,” the memo says.

“EPA and and its oil industry collaborators expected their test fuels to produce bad results for ethanol. When preliminary testing showed that higher ethanol fuels lowered emissions of nitrogen oxide and other pollutants, EPA considered ‘chang[ing] the program midstream’ to obtain different results ‘[i]f we continue seeing no NOx effect,’” according to the memo, describing the FOIA emails. “In the end, EPA decided to exclude the relevant test fuels from the program, and otherwise altered its slate of test fuels to ’emphasiz[e] ethanol effects.’”

The memo also outlines a legal threat that might form the basis of fresh litigation. “EPA’s exclusive and secretive reliance on the oil industry to design the EPAct study’s test fuels violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act and EPA’s own Scientific Integrity Policy and Information Quality Guidelines,” the memo says.

Ethanol Emissions 

Changing the emissions profile of ethanol in MOVES to predict lower NOx pollution would boost the willingness of regulators to support higher ethanol blends, such as 30 percent (E30), rather than the E10 that is now standard and E15, which is authorized but yet to gain much market share.

Higher blends are promoted by the ethanol industry as a means to achieve the increasing fuel-blending requirements of the renewable fuel standard program, and also a means to provide octane for higher efficiency engines that can help vehicles meet tightening federal fuel efficiency standards.

While the UAI source says that the group intends to soon petition EPA to revise MOVES based on the alleged collusion between EPA and API, the oil sector denies such claims.

API’s Greco in the Nov. 4, 2014, interview said the CRC work at issue is “being grossly misrepresented,” because it was one small component of a much larger research effort, funded by EPA, that fed into the 2014 version of the MOVES model. EPA’s overall research looked at 31 different fuels, whereas CRC only funded two of these. “CRC is a research organization, they don’t engage in advocacy,” said Greco. With respect to the specifics of the contested study, Greco said the pro-ethanol groups “don’t understand how research is done.”

CRC in its studies used “match blending” in order to limit the variability of the fuel to the component being studied, ethanol, rather than see multiple variables that could confuse the results, Greco said.

Ethanol advocates, however, say that “splash blending” reflects what actually happens at the pump, and shows lower emissions from ethanol.