Cracks Starting to Show in Blend Wall for Biofuels

Farmers, ethanol manufacturers are making headway in their effort to get federal government to allow higher blends of ethanol in gasoline.

Published on: Mar 19, 2009

An increasing number of political leaders, including U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, agree it's time to increase the amount of ethanol blended in the nation's gasoline supply beyond the 10% level established 30 years ago. Today, with the 10% limit set by the federal government, ethanol usage is essentially capped at around 12 billion gallons per year, a level that is being bumped up against by the continuing increase in ethanol production.

More and more research studies show, and experts are saying, that cars will run better on a higher blend and using a higher blend would do more to help break America's addiction to foreign oil.

Speaking to the National Farmers Union convention last week in Washington, D.C., U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic Congresswoman from California, joined the growing chorus of influential voices calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to raise the decades old, arbitrary limit on the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline from 10% (E10) up to 15% (E15).

Grassley and Harkin pushing for increase

Iowa's two U.S. Senators, Republican Charles Grassley and Democrat Tom Harkin, are both pushing the Obama administration to allow higher blends. In a letter to President Obama, Grassley said that if American taxpayers are again asked to bail out the automobile industry, carmakers should be required to support increasing ethanol blends and produce more flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on 85% ethanol.

"If U.S. taxpayers are being called upon to bail out the auto industry and underwrite their retooling, it seems only reasonable that we can expect them to manufacture vehicles that fully use homegrown biofuels and enable our efforts to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil," Grassley says.

Harkin is also urging President Obama and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to move quickly to allow an increase in the amount of ethanol blended in gasoline.

EPA administrator will have to be convinced

Last week, Harkin sent out a press release applauding the recent request by members of the ethanol industry to EPA, asking EPA administrator Jackson to authorize the blending and use of up to 15% ethanol in gasoline supplies. Under present regulations, only flex-fuel vehicles are authorized to use gasoline containing more than 10% ethanol. With total ethanol production rapidly approaching 10% of annual gasoline sales, this limitation is beginning to constrict ethanol markets and limiting the use of this clean domestically produced biofuel.

"I commend the ethanol companies for submitting this waiver request and hope EPA will move forward quickly with a positive ruling," said Harkin, who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "This waiver is necessary to open ethanol markets and enable us to stay on a path towards decreasing the use of petroleum-based fuels and increasing the use of alternative biofuels produced from domestic resources."

Detroit could produce all flex-fuel vehicles

At the National Farmers Union Convention, both Vilsack and Harkin expressed their support for authorizing a higher blend. Harkin told the audience of the need to get EPA to move quickly to grant the waiver to allow higher blends.

He added, "Then we've got to get Detroit to start making flexible-fuel cars. If Detroit is going to keep coming in and asking for more and more money, we ought to tell them they need to do a few things. Dick Lugar and I have a bill introduced in Congress that says automobile manufacturers would have to produce 90% of their cars and light trucks as flex-fuel vehicles by 2013. Now folks, that is not a heavy lift for the automakers to do that. Detroit could do it next year if they wanted to. If they're going to keep coming with their hand out, we should grab them by the wrist and tell them, do this: make all of your cars flexible-fuel. That way you can go in and use 10% or 12% or 15% or 25% or E85 or whatever you want."

Under present regulations, only flex-fuel vehicles are authorized to use gasoline containing more than 10% ethanol. With total ethanol production rapidly approaching 10% of annual gasoline sales, this limitation is beginning to constrict ethanol markets and limit use. Vilsack said he supports the industry's request.

"We can, we believe, move fairly quickly to move that rate up from 10% to maybe 12% or 13% in the interim, and then take an even further jump to 15% or 20% over the next few years," Vilsack said.

Midwest ag secretaries ask Obama to raise cap

Following the release of a study by North Dakota State University last week that showed increasing the blend wall for ethanol could boost job creation and economic growth, the biofuels industry has requested that the Environmental Protection Agency raise the blend wall to 15%.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and other Midwest Secretaries of Agriculture last week sent a letter to President Obama thanking him for his strong support of renewable energy and requesting the acceptance of 15% or 20% ethanol blends.

"Ethanol has proven to have a positive impact on the American economy by creating more jobs, increasing domestic production and adding a larger tax base," says Northey. "It is important we take the next step to expand the industry by increasing the current ethanol blend of 10% to 15% or 20%."