Governors Reinforce Push For Higher Octane Ethanol Blends In Vehicle Rule

Source: By Stuart Parker, Inside EPA • Posted: Monday, July 26, 2021

Midwestern governors are throwing their weight behind a push by biofuels advocates for EPA to allow higher ethanol blends as part of its forthcoming proposed rule that will likely tighten light-duty vehicle greenhouse gas standards, part of a broader effort by the biofuels sector to maintain its markets during a shift to vehicle electrification.

In a July 23 letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan and White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Acting Director Shalanda Young, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) on behalf of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition urge higher ethanol blends as one element of EPA’s revisions to the Trump-era Safe Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles (SAFE) Rule.

Walz and Noem are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the coalition that includes 22 states, many of which are major biofuels producers.

“A revised SAFE rule that provides an expanded market for high-octane ethanol is a means to reduce GHGs and harmful air emissions, provide much needed economic stability in rural America and provide countless health and economic benefits to all Americans,” Walz and Noem write.

EPA’s proposed SAFE rule modification are now under OMB review as officials face a deadline — set by President Joe Biden’s climate executive order — to issue a proposal by the end of the month for vehicle GHG standards through model year 2026.

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (SD) is already leading a push by biofuels advocates for higher ethanol blends than the ten percent blend (E10) that is the national standard, and also higher than E15, which is currently authorized for most vehicles.

Daschle leads a “High Octane, Low Carbon Alliance” pressing for blends as high as E30, which would boost the octane rating of fuel and allow for more fuel-efficient engines.

However, acting EPA air chief Joe Goffman has rejected Daschle’s efforts to require high ethanol blends under the upcoming SAFE proposal, viewing them as a new issue that could complicate the rule. Daschle has rejected Goffman’s stance, given that the concept of a national high-octane standard has been under discussion for years.

Speaking to EPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee this week, Goffman called the vehicles rule “imminent.”

In their letter to administration officials, the governors echo many of Daschle’s arguments, including that ethanol provides a cleaner source of octane than aromatic fuel additives such as benzene that are toxic.

“Without question, higher octane allows automakers to increase engine efficiency and achieve the objectives of the proposed SAFE rule. The use of low carbon fuels such as ethanol will ensure that octane does not come from carcinogenetic aromatics that release fine particulate emissions associated with respiratory diseases that affect all Americans, especially vulnerable populations and those living in urban areas,” Walz and Noem say.

Curbing GHGs

The governors also echo another argument Daschle and other biofuels advocates have made: that biofuels offer a much faster route to curb GHGs in the near-term, because they can work with existing vehicles and liquid fueling infrastructure that will be in use for years.

The governors write, “Despite consumer trends toward hybrid and electric vehicles, the reality is that Americans will continue to rely on liquid fuels for decades to come. The Administration should pursue a balanced approach to fuel economy standards that acknowledges this reality and provides greater market access for home-grown energy sources with a proven track record of reducing emissions while supporting American jobs.”

Biofuels supporters argue the fuels can cut GHGs in two ways — because their lifecycle GHGs are much lower than those of unblended gasoline, and because they could allow for higher-efficiency engines that would burn less fuel.

Advocates say EPA currently undercounts the GHG reductions of conventional corn ethanol, which still supplies most of the biofuel used for blending into the fuel supply under the renewable fuel standard (RFS).

The industry’s supporters in Congress have introduced bipartisan bills seeking to force EPA to revise its calculations of ethanol’s GHG lifecycle emissions to show much greater benefits, in line with certain recent studies and assumptions used by the Department of Agriculture.

But biofuel opponents doubt that corn ethanol provides any real GHG benefits, and have introduced rival legislation aimed at ending support for corn ethanol under the RFS.

The politically fraught nature of congressional debate on biofuels, which divides lawmakers on regional, rather than party lines, helps to explain Daschle’s assertion that the SAFE rule overhaul represents the best means of introducing a national high octane fuel standard — and with it, a major boost in ethanol consumption much larger than any likely to be achieved through the RFS.

EPA’s long-overdue rule setting biofuel blending volumes under the RFS for 2021 is reportedly held up by the White House over political considerations that could also include the need to shore-up Democratic support for infrastructure legislation that is a key part of the president’s agenda.

EPA needs to send the RFS rule for formal OMB review, issue a proposal, take public comment and finalize the rule by Nov. 30 — a year late — along with next year’s volumes that are also due by the statutory Nov. 30 deadline.

Meanwhile, the courts have recently handed ethanol advocates a series of setbacks. The Supreme Court in June ruled that EPA may issue small refiners with waivers from RFS compliance even if they lacked such waivers in prior years, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit then ruled July 2 to overturn the Trump EPA’s authorization of E15 for sales in summer, when tougher fuel volatility limits apply to curb air pollution.

E15 sales will be halted next summer if the D.C. Circuit’s ruling is not overturned on rehearing or appeal to the Supreme Court, or reversed by recently-introduced legislation, or by EPA regulation, biofuels sources say.