The Environmental Protection Agency will not be giving out any “waivers” to allow oil refiners to avoid blending ethanol and gasoline — something it had said it would consider but under pressure from the biofuels sector, it decided this week to hold off. What do automakers think of this?
Under a 2007 law called the Renewables Fuels Standard, or RFS, Congress passed legislation that was signed by the president that requires all gasoline to have a 10% ethanol blend. Now it wants to up that to 15% (E85), which has raised concerns not just from the oil refiners that have to blend the ethanol but also from the car companies that are concerned about performance.
“Years ago, Congress passed a law that mandated biofuels such as corn ethanol to be blended into our nation’s gasoline supply,” the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers said, in a statement.
“(T)he law was a response to anticipated high gasoline prices, oil imports from the Middle East and higher gasoline use,” it adds. “But Congress got it wrong: the RFS has failed due to improved fuel efficiency, cheap domestic oil from fracking and lower gasoline use. Worse still, the ethanol harms engines and is bad for the environment. A final throw of the dice for the corn lobby is E85 – but all signs point towards its failure.”
The RFS is good for the corn growers, who sell their produce to ethanol makers. But the oil producers say that not only is ethanol an expensive proposition but it is also a give away — and that ethanol hurts gas mileage and thus has no real eco-advantages.
Even environmentalists worry about things like soil erosion, water quality and food shortages.
Others, though, say that ethanol is a lot cleaner than pure gasoline and that it substantially reduces CO2 levels. Newer generations of ethanol are in the pipeline, which include the transition to non-food based sources — things that the U.S. government has investments in.
Here’s the reality: 96% of all cars can run on 10% ethanol derived from corn but some in the auto sector said that their cars can’t handle 15% — that it corrodes the engines and erodes performance levels, which cost businesses money and which pollutes the air even more. In other words, pure gasoline has more oomph than than gasoline that is blended with ethanol, they say.
Some automakers like Toyota and Lexus have warned drivers that if they fill up with E85 that their warranties may not cover engine damage, a Fox story had said.
To be clear, there are two generations of ethanol: the first is tied to corn while the second is more advanced cellulosic ethanol and associated with things like switchgrass, wood chips and municipal waste. Most of the criticism is tied to corn, which is not only less efficient than cellulosic ethanol but it is also an essential food.
Congress has sought to expand ethanol use from a base of 6.5 billion gallons in 2005 to 16 billion gallons by 2022, as part of the RFS. As such, ethanol is to comprise 10 percent of gasoline’s blend. The concern: Farmers are replacing other crops with corn, thereby creating shortages of other food products. A transition to cellulosic ethanol would therefore mitigate that scenario.
Cellulosic fibers are abundant and could supply 130 million gallons a year of ethanol that would replace gasoline, although it is still pricey when compared to corn-based ethanol and some early trials have ended in disappointment. To commercialize the fuel additive, developers say that they have to increase scale and to bring down the cost to $2 a barrel — a tough proposition in current market conditions.
Ethanol, though, has potential: oil giant BP, has said that bio-fuels could provide up to 23 percent of the global demand for transportation fuels by 2030.
“Over the last five years, E15 has proven itself as a safe, economical and popular alternative to gasoline. It is estimated that American drivers have logged over 400 million miles on the fuel without a single reported case of ‘engine damage,’ misfueling or inferior performance,” said the Renewable Fuels Association. “Moreover, E15 typically offers a slightly higher octane than E10, but usually costs a bit less and also helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
It does go on to say that EPA’s waiver approves the use of E15 in all vehicles built since 2001 and that most automakers are explicitly Okaying its use in newer vehicles. That includes 80% of all 2017 cars, it adds, including: Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai and Kia.
Politics may be the ultimate arbiter — that the agricultural lobby has consistently bested the arguments of oil refiners and others and has been able to persuade US lawmakers that ethanol additives are good for the environment and the economy.