Expanded E15 sales have helped, but ethanol backers say roadblocks still remain

Source: By Chris Dunker, Lincoln Journal • Posted: Monday, November 2, 2020

In lifting a restriction on the sale of E15 during summer months, corn growers and ethanol producers praised President Donald Trump for removing a major roadblock to expanding sale of the 15% ethanol blend.

Trump touted the rule change in June 2019 at an event at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy near Council Bluffs, saying it showed he kept a promise to fight on behalf of American farmers.

The change has helped corn farmers, ethanol production facilities, and retailers, said Roger Breed, administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

“We continue to see drivers realize the value of E15,” Breed said. “They realize it’s less expensive when compared to E10, and they are getting the same results in miles per gallon.

“There’s a lot of pluses for people,” he added.

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, expanded E15 sales helped provide a cushion when 11 of Nebraska’s 25 ethanol plants went into a “hot idle” and production decreased by 45% statewide.

Breed said all but two of the plants have returned to normal operations, which has left Nebraska’s ethanol production — No. 2 in the U.S. behind Iowa and ahead of Illinois — about 5% below its capacity before COVID-19.

But the Trump administration has left several roadblocks in place preventing E15 from reaching its full potential, ethanol backers say.

Environmental Protection Agency rules prevent retailers from storing E15 in underground tanks without first ensuring those tanks are compatible with the fuel source, said Geoff Cooper, CEO of the Illinois-based Renewable Fuels Association.

“A lot of retailers may not know the exact manufacturer of the tank,” Cooper said. “The EPA would currently require them to break concrete to see what they have underground to ensure it’s compatible before they can sell E15.

“That’s not a viable option and not something many are willing to do, for various reasons,” Cooper added.

Another sticking point is the bright-orange warning labels that appear on pumps where E15 is sold telling drivers the fuel is only approved for vehicles manufactured after 2001. Market research has shown that when consumers see the sticker, they don’t bother reading any further and will often skip trying the fuel, Cooper said.

Trump has signaled his support for changing both rules, both in campaign stops throughout the Midwest and on social media.

“Subject only to State approval, our important Ethanol Industry will be allowed to use the 10% Pumps for the 15% Blend. Thank you!” Trump tweeted Sept. 12 at several Midwest lawmakers, including Sen. Deb Fischer and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

The president has mentioned changing the E15 storage and labeling at a stop in Des Moines, Iowa, Cooper said, and signaled his continued support for ethanol in Omaha last week.

Drawing attention to vice presidential candidate and California Sen. Kamala Harris’ support for the Green New Deal, Trump said the proposal would “totally wipe out the ethanol industry.”

“As president, I will always defend ethanol, OK?” Trump told thousands of people who attended Tuesday night’s rally at Eppley Airfield.

Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, has also said he backs expanding E15 sales and the Renewable Fuel Standard, but has not spoken about lifting further restrictions preventing the fuel from appearing at more gas stations.

With ethanol production and consumption still below normal levels, removing red tape to allow E15 to be sold in more locations across the U.S. is key, Cooper said.

Despite Trump’s vocal support, there has been no movement by the EPA to begin changing the rule, which could take as long as a year to complete, he added.

“This is clearly something the president wants to do, but the EPA has been silent on this,” Cooper said. “Yet again, it appears we have a disconnect between what we’re hearing from the president on ethanol and what the EPA is doing to carry out those commitments.”