EPA approves the use of higher ethanol blend in some cars after 'extensive' tests

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday said a higher blend of ethanol in gasoline is safe to use in cars, light trucks and sport utility vehicles for model year 2007 and later, offering a partial victory for advocates of the corn-based additive.

EPA’s air quality chief, Gina McCarthy, said the decision to allow use of E-15 — which consists of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline — for newer vehicles came after “extensive testing” at the Department of Energy.

Currently, there is a 10 percent limit on ethanol content in a gallon of gasoline.

While McCarthy emphasized that EPA is not mandating the use of E-15, “there’s no question that today’s decision has the ability to increase the use of renewable fuels in the future.” She estimated that more than 65 million cars and light trucks as old as model year 2007 could be able to use the higher ethanol blend next year.

EPA is still determining whether E-15 is safe to use in vehicle model years between 2001 and 2006 and will announce a decision on that issue later this year. The agency is waiting for the results of Energy Department tests that should be completed by November.

The agency, however, put off until at least next year a decision on whether to approve the use of the higher ethanol blend in vehicle model year 2000 and older, citing insufficient data and possible air quality concerns. A decision has been indefinitely put off as well regarding heavy-duty vehicles, motorcycles, non-road engines, vehicles and equipment.
 
"We did the best job we could with the data available with this waiver," McCarthy told reporters on a conference call. "But it doesn’t close the door to additional testing and additional wavier requests moving forward."

The decision is a partial victory for ethanol advocates such as Growth Energy, who pushed for the green-lighting of the higher blend and say they can safely produce beyond the current limit of 10 percent ethanol per gallon of gasoline. They also say the higher blend is necessary to help the industry survive in the long term.

Given the voluntary use of E-15 for newer vehicles, it is unclear how quickly and the scope of which it will be available and used.
 
Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis predicted that E-15 could be made available by the start of the first quarter next year, while also noting that it took 32 years for E-10 to be close to saturated in the marketplace. The expectation is for the first marketing of the higher blend to be in the Midwest and than ideally expanded from there.
 
Among the challenges include state regulatory hurdles, which may have to be dealt with legislatively in California and other states. “We’re portraying this as a good first step,” Buis told reporters on a conference call. “We know we have challenges that we have to address moving forward.”

There is concern by some that only allowing certain vehicles to use E-15 will create confusion in the marketplace and undermine Wednesday’s decision by EPA.

Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen said EPA is “missing an opportunity” by limiting E-15 to newer vehicles. “EPA’s scientifically unjustified bifurcation of the U.S. car market will do little to move the needle and expand ethanol use today,” Dinneen said. “Limiting E15 use to 2007 and newer vehicles only creates confusion for retailers and consumers alike.”
 
EPA is also proposing to require that gasoline pumps “visibly and clearly state” that they contain E-15 and that is safe to use only for vehicles as old as model year 2007, McCarthy said.
 
That includes requiring fuel industries to specify ethanol content to retailers and quarterly surveys to see whether retail stations are properly labeling their pumps.

Growth Energy and 54 ethanol manufacturers petitioned EPA in March 2009 to allow E-15 to be used in the marketplace.
 
Livestock ranchers, automakers and others have long opposed any move to increase the use of ethanol in gasoline.
 
The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Nathanael Greene put up a blog post on Wednesday before EPA’s announcement stating that the moves involves “serious risks for our engines, wildlife, water and the air will all breathe.”
 
He argued, “burning ethanol can cause toxic air pollutants to be emitted from vehicle tailpipes, especially at higher blend levels like E15.”
 
Automakers are urging their customers to read their owners’ manuals about using ethanol-blended gasoline.

"If EPA proceeds with this decision in the face of concerns raised by automakers and others, it will need to continue to be engaged in the event that problems arise," the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement.

"Mis-fueling avoidance measures such as retail pump labeling may not be effective in supporting proper consumer choices, and this is particularly problematic with a partial waiver that tries to splice up acceptable fuels based on particular model years," the statement said.
 
Texas lawmakers in both parties are seeking legal protection for oil refiners and others that fear exposure to costly lawsuits due to a higher ethanol blend.

They fear the higher ethanol blend could lead to a host of lawsuits against the fuel industry, reminiscent of when the additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, was found to contaminate groundwater.