The EPA E15 Ruling Opens the Door for E30

Source: By Doug Durante, Clean Fuels Development Coalition • Posted: Monday, April 1, 2024

One of the things that has bugged me as we work our way through ethanol issues is when things are mis-characterized. Take for example the reference to the RFS as an “ethanol mandate.”  Ethanol is in no way mandated under the RFS – the refiners choose ethanol as a way to meet their obligation, they could have used renewable diesel, biogas, even renewable methanol or purchased RINS. The fact that ethanol is the overwhelming choice doesn’t equate to it being mandated. The media has relentlessly mis-stated this and always in a negative light.

The current example of mis-speak is that E15 is “banned” during summer months and that the request by eight governors to EPA is to “allow” the sale of E15. Both of these assumptions are incorrect. E15 is not and was never banned. Other than California, it is allowed to be sold anytime, anywhere – provided it meets the same vapor pressure limits of gasoline. E10, on the other hand, is provided a 1-pound waiver from that limit.

By now we all know the lunacy of this – E15 has the same or lower RVP as E10 and there is no rational reason to interpret the law the way EPA, refiners and the courts have done. For 10 percent ethanol blends to get the 1-pound waiver and assume itonly applies to 10 percent is absurd. In fact, the authorizing language for the RVP waiver is for gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol. Well, E15 contains 10 percent ethanol. What’s more frustrating is that in a quirk of chemistry, the increase in vapor pressure peaks at just under 10% and then begins to go down as more ethanol is added. At 30 percent, there is no vapor pressure increase at all!

So the “ban” was solely due to this nuance of saying 10 percent rather than “any blend of ethanol,” or “10 percent or more.” A lot of folks ask where the 10 percent number came from to begin with. Having been around during those early days, I know that the federal tax exemption specified eligibility as being for 10 percent blends so that is one reason. Furthermore, we produced so little ethanol in terms of volume no one envisioned having enough to think about volumes beyond 10 percent.

But back to the “ban.” Under existing regulations, if the summer vapor pressure limit in any given area was, for example, 8 pounds per square inch (psi), E10 would be allowed at 9 psi. E15 could be used but only of it if it met the 8-pound standard, again illustrating that there was no ban. The problem, of course, is that refiners would have to provide a specialized sub-RVP gasoline so after the ethanol is added it did not exceed limits.

That is totally impractical for a refiner and the result is that retailers selling E15 have to stop selling in the summer months.

Frustrated after more than a decade of arguing this issue, the eight Midwest governors said fine, if you are not going to extend the waiver then we reject it; all gasoline sold in our states must meet the same standard. Since refiners have set up their process to put out a sub-octane fuel and rely on ethanol to bring it up to specification (i.e. 87 octane minimum), this will force them to also make the base gasoline low enough in vapor pressure that adding ethanol – any ethanol, be it 10 or 15 percent, meets the same final spec.

To clarify, what the governors did was request EPA to drop the 1-pound waiver, not to “allow” the sale of E15. The result, of course, is if the proper base gasoline is provided then there would be no limit to the sale of E15. This is not splitting hairs. It is an important nuance because if an ethanol blend can be sold as long as it does not exceed RVP limits it should apply to any blend.

Ethanol is an additive to gasoline. It is an approved additive in EPA certification fuel, which as the term implies, is used to certify emissions and efficiency. The late C. Boyden Gray, unquestionably one of the great legal minds in the fields of fuels and emissions, argued that once ethanol became an approved additive for the purpose of certification there is no restriction on how much ethanol can be blended with gasoline. In fact, he argued the burden of proof would be on EPA to demonstrate – after extensive testing – that there were any negative emissions associated with such blends.

What all this means for ethanol is that retailers should feel free to blend any volume of ethanol they choose. Under the governors’ request, all gasoline with ethanol would have to meet whatever the standard is for non-blended gasoline. While auto and government testing validates E30 as the optimum blend level, this is important because an orderly transition to a nationwide E30 fuel cannot happen overnight and mid-level blends such as an E20 or E25 might wind up being used as a stairstep to E30.

But we can use E30 now. Adding 20 percent ethanol to today’s E10 would not result in any vapor pressure increase and produce a 98+ RON premium gasoline that would be significantly less expensive than current premium.

A nationwide transition to E30 would provide incredible benefits in oil savings, health and climate benefits and energy security.

The bottom line is that for the U.S., with the largest gasoline market in the world, to allow itself to be captive to a 90 percent gasoline market is asinine. As we have pointed out many times, countries around the globe are using 20-30 percent blends and providing their citizens numerous benefits. We should be doing the same.