USDA touts ethanol, but its cars have limited access — report

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, August 13, 2018

More than any other federal agency, the Department of Agriculture promotes fuel made from corn and other crops.

Using those fuels in the department’s vehicles, though — especially at the Forest Service — continues to present a big challenge.

That’s one conclusion from a 2017 “strategic sustainability performance plan” for USDA, which outlined the department’s goals on greenhouse gas reductions, pollution prevention and fleet management.

Although the report stems from an Obama administration executive order that President Trump revoked in May, it highlights an ongoing obstacle facing biofuels.

Higher-ethanol fuel, the study says, isn’t available in many of the places where department employees drive, despite still-in-force directives that agencies buy flex-fuel vehicles and seek out fuel that’s 85 percent ethanol.

In the document’s reference to alternative-fuel vehicles, USDA highlighted the Forest Service, which has about 19,000 highway vehicles, including a significant number of E85 flex-fuel vehicles, said the report.

The flex-fuel vehicles were the only alternative fuel vehicles available that met the agency’s needs through a federal acquisition program, the report said.

“However, there is little or no access to E-85 fuel in the communities that the Forest Service offices are located especially outside the Mid-west region,” said the document.

“Even at stations that advertise E-85 fuel, the supply is sporadic at best,” it said. “Our vehicle operators have been instructed to use E-85 fuel 100% of the time whenever available.”

Absent more E85 availability, the Forest Service has moved toward buying other alternatively fueled vehicles, especially those using compressed natural gas, the report said.

Federal regulations are written to encourage alternative fuel use across agencies. The Clean Air Act dictates that 75 percent of new light-duty federal fleets must now be alternative fuel vehicles. Sometimes that means flex-fuel vehicles, which take ethanol blends up to 85 percent.

At the Forest Service, officials have asked USDA to waive alternative fuel requirements when the fuels aren’t available, the forest agency told E&E News.

According to the report, USDA requires that alternative fuel vehicles be requested when E85 fuel is available within 5 miles or a 15-minute drive of the ZIP code where the vehicle is garaged.

“When E85 isn’t available agencies are encouraged to purchase low greenhouse emission sub-compact gasoline sedans,” according to the report.

In an executive order May 17, Trump directed USDA, EPA and the Department of Energy to develop plans within 90 days — or late August — to revise or rescind guidance on renewable energy, although statutory requirements remain in place (Climatewire, May 18).

USDA is far from alone among federal agencies that have a hard time meeting alternative fuel requirements. The Postal Service, for instance, has said it has far more alternative fuel vehicles than it can fill with high-ethanol blends.

USDA, though, stands out for it advocacy on biofuels. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has become outspoken this year in defending the federal renewable fuel standard, adopting the ethanol industry’s term of “demand destruction” for EPA’s granting of waivers that temporarily exempt some refineries from meeting ethanol mandates.

In addition, USDA has programs to encourage availability of higher-ethanol blends at gas stations. The department’s Biofuel Infrastructure Partnership, adopted during the Obama administration, helped cover the cost of installing more than 4,800 blender pumps nationally, according to USDA. The program is still active, the agency said, although grants haven’t been announced during Trump’s tenure.

The Renewable Fuels Association, a pro-ethanol trade group, supports government and industry efforts to expand availability, said a spokeswoman, Rachel Gantz. About 4,400 stations sell flex fuel in 45 states, she said, in more than 2,400 cities and towns.

“While E85 is available in much of the country, the U.S. ethanol industry continues to work on expanding greater market access,” Gantz said.