E15 ethanol blend gets green light

It was a happy day for corn growers and the ethanol industry June 15 as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted final approval for a higher blend of ethanol to be sold at gas stations across the country. But that doesn’t mean the 15% ethanol blended fuel will be available anytime soon. Sizable hurdles remain for E15.

Until now companies weren’t allowed to sell a fuel that contained more than 10% ethanol for use in most conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. Most of the ethanol blended fuel sold in the United States is E10, a 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol blend.

EPA, which approved the new blend in January 2011, had to first complete a series of steps before E15 could go on sale. These steps are aimed at avoiding misuse of the fuel. That is to ensure the E15 fuel is properly labeled and sold, and to prevent motorists from mistakenly putting the higher blend in unapproved vehicles. E15 is approved for use in cars and light trucks from 2001 model year and newer, but is prohibited from use in older vehicles and light equipment such as lawn mowers.

Key Points

EPA gives final approval to fuel blend with 15% ethanol for newer vehicles.

But E15 won’t likely be at the retail pump soon, as sizable hurdles remain.

Oil industry holding up proper gasoline blendstock needed for the summer.

“This approval process for E15 has taken three years, has had to clear numerous hurdles, and we’re glad to see EPA give it the final OK,” says Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “However, the oil companies are the holdup now. They aren’t supplying Iowa with the type of gasoline blend stock necessary to blend with ethanol to make E15 during the summer months.”

The blend stock for E10 is different than the blend stock required for E15 from June 1 to Sept. 1. “Oil companies are simply sending up the pipeline the blend stock gasoline for E10,” says Shaw. “The E10 blend stock isn’t suitable under federal law for blending with E15. In reality, it would work, but not under quirky federal regulations.”

Big oil is roadblock

Shaw says under current regulations, mid-September is the soonest E15 could be available in Iowa. He’s not giving up on finding a way to get an acceptable E15 blend to sell at gas pumps this summer, but it has to be cost-effective. Some ethanol proponents have suggested the gasoline summer blend stock to use to make E15 could be trucked into Iowa instead of piped in, but that would be costly.

“It’s not surprising the oil industry has used its fuel distribution monopoly to keep the blend stock for E15 out of Iowa,” says Shaw. “Some folks in the ethanol industry are attempting to bypass the oil company system in order to bring the proper blend stock into Iowa, but it’s too soon to know if that will prove feasible.”

He adds, “Clearly, the oil industry isn’t interested in consumer choice or lower-cost fuel. Oil is interested in maintaining its near monopoly and artificially high oil profits that result. While the news of E15 getting EPA’s final approval is exciting, the excitement is tempered by the artificial marketplace hurdles thrown up by opponents of ethanol.”

EPA says while some companies may introduce E15 into the retail marketplace, certain federal and state requirements, along with other issues, must still be addressed. For example, fuel dispenser and tank compatibility with E15 must be considered by marketers of the fuel. In addition, because several states restrict the sale of some gasoline-ethanol blends, changes in laws might be needed before E15 can be sold in those states.

There are a limited number of flex-fuel vehicles in the United States — cars that can use fuel containing blends of up to 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, or E85. Boosting the ethanol percentage from 10% to 15% for non-flex-fuel vehicles is one way to increase use of the renewable fuel. Iowa is the nation’s largest ethanol-producing state, with 41 plants that in 2011 produced about 3.7 billion of the total 13 billion gallons of ethanol produced nationwide.

Source: IRFA, EPA

This article published in the July, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.