Energy & Environment

How Biden’s ethanol order is sparking worries about pollution

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The Biden administration’s decision to expand the availability of higher-ethanol fuel to provide relief at the pump to consumers is also likely to lead to new problems with pollution.

The waiver removes restrictions on selling so-called E15 ethanol blends so that they can be purchased between June and September, which the administration argues could help lower fuel prices.

But the restrictions were put in place over the summer months specifically because selling those blends, it is feared, would worsen air pollution when temperatures are high.

Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity, uses a cocktail comparison to describe the effect of E15 blends on the environment.

Ethanol is “basically vodka,” said Becker, and “when you mix an alcohol in with a mixture of gasoline or other volatile chemicals, it makes the mixture evaporate more readily.” 

Increasing evaporability, he said, “defeats everything that we’re trying to do to prevent more fuel from evaporating and getting into the air.” He added that it also increases nitric oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

All of this is a negative for parts of the country that already have high ozone levels.

“That really impacts ozone during the summer time, especially for areas that have high ozone levels,” said Margo Oge, who worked as director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012. 

“I live in Los Angeles, this place can make you feel it,” she added.

The risks are particularly high for older people and children with immature lungs, Becker said.

“The administration shouldn’t have done this, and they know they shouldn’t have done this, because this program to reduce evaporative emissions and keep the more volatile gasoline mixtures away from the summer months, has been in operation for decades,” he said. “So EPA has long experience on this issue.” 

Ethanol industry trade groups have long argued that concerns about pollution from E15 are unfounded.

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) has pointed to University of California research suggesting that E15, which is 15 percent ethanol, trends lower for ozone-forming potential compared to E10, which is 10 percent ethanol. They also noted that the summer sale restrictions date back to before the availability of E15, “when it was assumed that ethanol could never constitute more than 10 percent of the gasoline pool.” 

However, Becker called the industry’s characterization misleading, and part of its “long history of creative truth.” 

“The amount of evaporation is not linear. In other words, E15 does not evaporate one and a half times as much as E10,” he said.  

In an interview with The Hill, Geoff Cooper, the president and CEO of the RFA, disputed the characterization of E15 as a major pollutant and said tailpipe emissions are a far greater contributor to smog than evaporative emissions. 

“You’ve got to look at both evaporative and we got to look at exhaust emissions, and we think the science is clear that E15 reduces both compared to the gasoline commonly used in the marketplace today,” Cooper said. “And E15 has lower volatility. Not by much, but it … certainly is no higher. And so therefore, you’re going to get lower evaporative emissions with E15.” 

Cooper also referenced a study from the Center for Environmental Research and Technology at University of California, Riverside, that indicated lower levels of particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides — all what he described as “the things that when they come out of the tailpipe in the right conditions in the summertime, combine to make smog” — associated with the use of E15.

Oge noted that due to the limited number of gas stations that sell E15, any resultant air pollution may not have a wide geographical range. However, she said, it could also have further-reaching environmental impacts. 

“If you do a proper scientific analysis with the most recent data, using ethanol is not good for climate change either,” she said. “You have to use more land to raise more corn, and that continues to increase greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Research published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated the Renewable Fuel Standard, which required biofuels partially replace petroleum-based fuels, made ethanol a quarter more carbon intensive than standard gasoline, as well as indirectly contributing to other forms of pollution by increasing yearly fertilizer use by 8 percent.  

The waiver has won Biden some applause from unlikely though, when it comes to ethanol, unsurprising allies: Republicans in corn-producing states. Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have been a vocal proponents of allowing year-round E15 sales, a call Grassley repeated after the announcement.  

“We can’t sell E15 during these three and a half months out of the year,” Grassley said. “It’s just not a good way to market a product. You get people used to using E15 — particularly the lower price — they’ll keep using it,” Grassley said last Friday at a Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce event. 

Ultimately, Oge said, the impetus behind the waiver is most likely a way for Biden to point to action he is taking on an issue that is largely out of the federal government’s hands: the high price of gas.

The administration has announced several other actions, such as a record release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to try to show it is working to reduce prices. On Friday the administration announced it would resume lease sales for oil and gas drilling on public lands, after initially freezing sales.

“This is more of a political move [for Biden] to take any action he can to show the public that he cares about gasoline prices. And this is one of the actions that he’s taking,” Oge said. 

–Updated on April 20 at 12:22 p.m.

Tags Biden California Chuck Grassley Dan Becker E15 Ethanol gas prices Iowa Joe Biden

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