The E15 Dilemma—Let’s Not Take this Hill Twice

Source: By Doug Durante, Clean Fuels Development Coalition • Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The decision by the Biden Administration last month to lift the restriction on E15 during the summer months was by all accounts a public relations disaster.  How could what should have been presented to the public as a positive, health and money-in-your-pocket development gone so sideways?

Well, the blame begins with the Administration and whomever is advising the Biden inner circle on the issue, as well as EPA which has fumbled and bumbled their way through the E15 quagmire for the past decade.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement the media characterized it as a lifting of a “ban” and trading slightly lower cost for increased pollution. Why? Because they were not told anything, or certainly not enough, to the contrary. Terms like temporary and emergency only made people wince. The Washington Post said the President was conned. Major newspapers screamed we were diverting food to make fuel. So we have the most successful alternative fuel in our history labeled as causing pollution, world hunger, and any number of other problems.

First of all, E15 was never banned—which implied it is on the same level as lead, arsenic, or nuclear waste. Rather, as the President’s remarks could have more clearly explained, it was restricted in certain areas at certain times due to a nuance in the law that they intend to address and permanently correct, and that this was the first step in that process.

The White House Fact Sheet provided to the media and public should have come right out and said why are we doing this?

Then answer their own question by saying we already have 10% ethanol in all our gasoline which extends supplies, reduces imports, replaces carcinogens refiners use, lowers cost, and is made here at home. Most people don’t know that. In Biden’s homey style he could have said “thank goodness we have that, can you imagine how bad things would be if we took out ten percent of our fuel and had to replace it with imported oil? Well, increasing the allowable blend to 15% only gives us more of those benefits and every car on the road today since 2001 can safely choose to use E15. Moreover, as we transition to electric vehicles, we plan to aggressively pursue even higher blends to reduce greenhouse gases and reduce costs even more.”

“And it is important to note that ethanol can be made from all kinds of products, today with corn ethanol we are using feed grain corn not fit for human consumption, extracting the starches to make the fuels, and retaining the high protein feed grains. So there are no concerns about using food.”

That would have begun to talk people in off the ledge. EPA could have chimed in and explained the increase in vapor pressure from today’s 10% ethanol blends does not extend to E15 and in fact vapor pressure is reduced. They could have then underscored that by pointing out that they supported permanent E15 in a rule they finalized in 2021, but the nuance in the legislative language the President referred to was challenged by the oil industry so now we must do it all over again. They could have said the test fuel they collaborated on with DOE to justify the decision was actually 20% ethanol. They could have reminded the media that Brazil uses nearly 30% ethanol in every vehicle.

We know EPA doesn’t like ethanol but they are in a difficult position, having supported their own pro-E15 rule in the past. Sure, some smart guy in the room may be aware that EPA’s own models suggest E15 actually increases emissions, the vapor pressure issue notwithstanding. But addressing that one is easy—the models are wrong, the test procedures and protocols are skewed, and the agency has refused to correct them.

The President could have done his whisper close-to-the-microphone thing, where he leans in to presumably force people to listen, and say “and,(dramatic pause,) we are saving lives. When we use ethanol, we are taking cancer causing compounds like benzene out of gasoline, thus protecting our inner-city residents, children, and the elderly who have to breathe trapped emissions.”

But none of that happened. Instead, the White House fact sheet was a vague, hold- your nose kind of effort. Had they done the above it would have addressed criticism of increasing pollution, diverting from the food supply, and use in today’s automobiles and other engines.

In contrast it would have scored points with consumers on cost, emboldened agriculture and biofuel development, positioned it as an environmental justice initiative, and set the stage for where ethanol’s ultimate value is which is in much higher blends.

So this brings us to the dilemma—in a military analogy this is like capturing a hill but taking significant casualties, all the while knowing you need to come back and take it again. And for what? We have a high octane, low carbon, clean, domestic, job creating fuel and we are fighting for 5% more than is currently used? If we have to take that hill again then let’s take the mountain behind it. If 15% is good then 20 is better and 30 is better yet. We are using E30 successfully in several midwestern states with huge price advantages and absolutely no performance issues.

Ethanol in the fuel mix “can work for American consumers…and avoid tight supplies and price spikes”. Sounds like an ethanol lobbyist, right? Well that statement came from the American Petroleum Institute and is immortalized on one of our recorded radio programs CFDC produced in the mid-1990s. Unless all the gas station signs I am seeing are typos, we are going through tight supplies and price spikes right now and the urgency of the moment calls for more ethanol, not less.

In a perfect world the base gasoline could all be 15% ethanol and another 15% could be splash blended on top of it. The result would be a high-octane low carbon fuel with no vapor pressure concerns, substantially lower carcinogens, and a lower cost. EPA has the ability pave the way to that vision. Similarly, legislation like the Next Generation Fuels Act that is a comprehensive overhaul of today’s gasoline would provide a better fuel and has the support of automakers as well as the ethanol industry and many others.

But – and stop me if you have heard this one—I thought we were going to EVs you might ask. We may—or may not. If we do, then fine, but force feeding it by banning internal combustion engines and overpromising to resolve the myriad of issues that EVs will face ignores reality. We have decades of gasoline in our future. Let’s clean it up, decarbonize it, lower its costs, and make it the best it can be. Taking that E15 hill without including a longer-term strategy and vision like breaking down the barriers to truly higher blends only kicks the can down the road and denies the public the benefits that are there to be had.

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