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E15 Controversy

Proposed shift to higher ethanol-blended gasoline draws questions from industry, activist groups, and Congress

by Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay
August 15, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 33

Not In This Engine
Credit: Shutterstock
Lawn mowers, snowmobiles, and boats are among motorized equipment that can’t accept E15.
Lawn Mower and Gasoline Tank in the Field.
Credit: Shutterstock
Lawn mowers, snowmobiles, and boats are among motorized equipment that can’t accept E15.

Someday, when drivers pull into the gas station to fill their tanks, the little label on the gas pump that currently says “E10” may say “E15.” That’s because the Environmental Protection Agency has approved a change in gasoline blend—allowing the percent of ethanol in fuel for certain types of vehicles to increase from 10% ethanol to as much as 15%.

But the proposed shift from E10 gasoline, which now makes up more than 90% of the U.S. gasoline market, to E15 has several industries, organizations, and even some members of Congress in an uproar. The worries range from what this change will do to vehicle performance to how an increase in demand for corn—from which much of the ethanol is derived—will affect the agricultural and livestock sectors.

Trade groups and some environmental groups have also raised questions about the data EPA used in deciding to raise the ethanol level. “Engines are not made for” E15, states Charles T. Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), an industry trade group. “You’re going to be putting consumers at risk.”

The seed of the uproar was sown in 2009 when Growth Energy, an organization that represents U.S. fuel ethanol supporters, and 54 ethanol manufacturers applied for a waiver under the Clean Air Act to increase the level of ethanol in fuels from 10% to 15%. The Clean Air Act prohibits the sale of fuels or fuel additives that don’t closely match those used to certify vehicles and engines for emission standards. The prohibition is in place to protect the emission control systems of vehicles and engines. Ethanol is an oxygenate that improves combustion and reduces tailpipe exhaust emissions, so blended gasoline differs from the fuel used to certify standards, thus requiring a waiver to be obtained from EPA for its use. E10 was granted such a waiver under the Clean Air Act more than 30 years ago.

What led Growth Energy to apply for the waiver was a piece of legislation that was passed by Congress in 2007 and signed into law by President George W. Bush late that year. That legislation, the Energy Independence & Security Act (EISA), expanded the federal Renewable Fuel Standard program to reduce petroleum imports and greenhouse gas emissions. One of the provisions of the law calls for the volume of renewable fuels in the transportation infrastructure to be 36 billion gal by 2022. In 2007, 4.7 billion gal of biofuel was added to gasoline.

Growth Energy realized that achieving the renewable fuel target set by EISA may not be possible without increasing the ethanol level in gasoline. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. consumed just over 13 billion gal of fuel ethanol in 2010. So unless the blend level increases, “there is no way we will ever meet the goal of 36 billion gallons by 2022,” Christopher Thorne, Growth Energy’s director of public affairs, states.

To get the U.S. closer to meeting the EISA goal, Growth Energy submitted its petition for a waiver under the Clean Air Act for a higher blend of ethanol in gasoline.

Heads Up
Credit: EPA
EPA’s proposed label for E15 has critics worried that it won’t effectively grab the consumer’s attention at the gas pump.
E15 label for gasoline to indicate gas is a 15% ethanol.
Credit: EPA
EPA’s proposed label for E15 has critics worried that it won’t effectively grab the consumer’s attention at the gas pump.

Meanwhile, EISA had prompted DOE in 2008 to begin testing various ethanol-gasoline blends, ranging from E0 to E20, in vehicles. “We were on a fact-finding mission” to see if the existing U.S. fleet of vehicles could accept a blend higher than E10, explains Patrick Davis, the program manager of vehicle technologies at DOE. He says the agency got input from various stakeholders, such as EPA, automakers, and fuel providers, to develop its test program. A large portion of the program looked at how tailpipe emissions would change when vehicles ran on a gasoline-ethanol blend over their full useful life—measured in terms of miles, where the end point is 120,000 miles on the odometer.

In October 2010, largely on the basis of DOE’s data, EPA partially granted Growth Energy’s waiver request. The partial waiver initially let fuel and fuel additive manufacturers introduce E15 for use in light-duty motor vehicles made in 2007 or later. After more DOE test data became available, EPA extended the waiver earlier this year to cars, sport-utility vehicles, and light-duty trucks made in 2001 or later.

A number of steps must be taken at the federal and state level before E15 can show up at gas stations. But several industries and organizations aren’t waiting for that to happen and have already taken action against EPA. NPRA, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Chicken Council, and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute are among the organizations that have sued the agency to block introduction of E15. Their concerns are that EPA relied on inadequate data to make its decision and that the agency took insufficient steps to ensure that consumers don’t attempt to use E15 in engines that are incompatible with E15, a practice called misfueling.

“We believe [EPA] made this decision based on politics rather than on science and technology,” NPRA’s Drevna states. He says the tests EPA looked at didn’t consider the full automobile, only the exhaust emissions, which is what the Clean Air Act cares about.

Davis says that criticism isn’t true. Although a significant portion of DOE’s test program looked at emissions from vehicles using higher ethanol blends, other parts of the program considered factors such as the effects of the blends on vehicle parts and whether the fuels affected the driving experience. “We did go beyond just the emission control systems,” Davis says.

Thorne also disputes the claim that EPA had insufficient data. “This was the most rigorous testing of a Clean Air Act petition in the history of the Clean Air Act,” he says. “There are 11 previously approved waivers. None had been tested as rigorously as” the one for E15.

Sheila Karpf, a legislative and policy analyst with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an activist group, says this is a rare case where the organization has broken ranks with EPA. “Normally, we support EPA in regulating chemicals and air pollutants, but in this instance, we believe EPA made the wrong decision,” she says.

Karpf agrees with Drevna that the tests on the vehicles were incomplete; she also says the tests didn’t look into the effects of having higher blends of ethanol in the gas pumps and other pieces of equipment in the fuel distribution system. EWG is worried that higher blends of ethanol may corrode the underground fuel storage tanks and cause groundwater contamination, a point that Thorne dismisses. According to him, E15 is not harsh enough to cause underground storage tanks to crumble.

Another general concern of E15 opponents is misfueling. Because motor vehicles made before 2001—motorcycles, boats, snowmobiles, school buses, delivery trucks, and off-road equipment—can’t use E15, EPA issued regulations last month to reduce the potential for those engines to be misfueled. The regulations include a label that would alert consumers at E15 gas pumps to check if their engine is compatible with the blend.

The black and orange label, with the word “Attention” across a corner, has not allayed misfueling concerns. “A lot of people simply may not read the label because the label isn’t alarming in any way,” Karpf says. “If somebody is in a hurry at the gas station and doesn’t actually see the label, they may put E15 in a small engine, like a lawn mower or a chain saw, and cause that engine to fail.”

But Thorne claims the label is acceptable. “It’s strictly educational, which should be the intent of the label. It informs the motorist at the pump what they are reaching for, which is all it should do.”

EPA is also getting an earful about E15 from Congress. A House of Representatives Science, Space & Technology subcommittee held a hearing last month on E15 use. Representatives from the American Petroleum Institute, National Chicken Council, Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, and other organizations testified against the increase in ethanol. They raised the misfueling concern as well as a fear that livestock feed prices would go up if more corn is shunted into making ethanol.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), vice chairman of the full committee, displayed responses he received to a letter he sent to 14 U.S. automakers asking how E15 would affect their vehicles. The automakers, including Honda and Volvo, expressed concerns that their vehicles would wear more quickly from E15 and warned that using the blend in their cars would void warranties.

“While Congress has recognized that subsidizing the ethanol industry simply props up an inferior product and holds back our energy policy, the EPA is obstinately pursuing its own political agenda. This decision came at the request of the ethanol lobby, but it will cost Americans dearly,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement.

The growing presence of the U.S. ethanol lobby also has E15 opponents particularly troubled. “Right now, most of the ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn ethanol. We have a lot of problems with corn being used for ethanol,” Karpf says, adding that growing corn has other environmental consequences. The way forward, Karpf says, is to adopt biofuels other than corn ethanol that have better environmental impacts. However, these biofuels are still in the R&D stage and are not commercially available (see page 10).

Drevna says his group will be asking Congress to reconsider EISA because it’s placing a heavy burden on fuel refiners in trying to meet its requirements. “We’re not opposed to ethanol. Ethanol is a valuable blend stock for gasoline,” he says, “up to a point.”

Thorne says the stated concerns over E15, especially the misfueling issue, are simply scare tactics. He says the U.S. has previously gone through fuel changes without fuss, citing the move in the 1990s from leaded to unleaded gasoline as an example. Thorne says by requesting the E15 waiver, ethanol producers are asking for a chance to compete in the fuel marketplace, where he is confident that consumers will happily pump higher blends of ethanol.  


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