Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=125087
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 3:44:18 PM CST
A look at the issues surrounding mid-level ethanol blends:
Most Americans want to know more about biofuels, according to a survey fielded by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Life Sciences Communication. Here are the key results:
WASHINGTON— As pressures grow to live a “green” lifestyle, a new survey shows Americans want to learn more about renewable biofuels. But science will ultimately dictate whether once-promising ethanol has a future in the mainstream fuel market.
The Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison surveyed 18,250 respondents nationwide. Two-thirds said they wanted to know more about renewable fuels.
A desire for knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire to consume, though. Only 24 percent said they were interested in using corn-based ethanol for transportation needs. Nearly half of Americans believe the production of ethanol puts pressure on the nation’s food and water supplies.
“In the beginning we were told that it is a clean, green fuel that could energize the U.S. agriculture sector and reduce our imports of foreign oil,” said Dulce Fernandes, associate director of the New York-based Network for New Energy Choices, an organization dedicated to environmentally responsible energy.
But these promises have not been fulfilled and Fernandes said Americans are done being “biofooled.”
Nick Berning, press secretary for an environmental preservation organization called Friends of the Earth, agreed that as they learn about land-use issues and deforestization, Americans have become less enthusiastic about the promise of biofuels.
Public health, consumer safety and air quality concerns are being raised in Congress, where environmental, health and refinery groups testified before a Senate subcommittee last week in opposition to higher volumes of ethanol being blended into the nation’s transportation fuels.
Today, ethanol is blended into 75-80 percent of every gallon of gasoline sold in the United States. The maximum level of ethanol that may be blended into gas for use in conventional gasoline-powered vehicles is 10 percent by volume.
E85, which is 85 percent ethanol by volume and classified as an alternative fuel, is used in vehicles with flexible fuel designs, such as 2009 models of the Lincoln Town Car and Jeep Commander. Blends that fall between E10 and E85 are known as mid-level ethanol blends and cannot be sold for use in conventional motor vehicles or non-road engines.
Change could come soon
Last month, 53 ethanol manufacturers submitted a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency seeking approval for the use of E15, which is 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline.
Matt Hartwig, communications director for the Renewable Fuels Association, the national trade organization for the ethanol industry, said Monday that in order for policies related to renewable fuels to work in reducing America’s foreign oil habit, more ethanol blending must occur.
“E85 and other higher level blends are coming along with the vehicle technology to utilize them,” Hartwig said. “But increasing the amount of ethanol standard vehicles use in a gallon of gasoline is a critical part of that success.”
However, the consensus among five witnesses at last week’s Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing was that there’s not enough information yet about the effects of ethanol to move forward with the use of mid-level ethanol blends.
“Ethanol should not be blended into gasoline at levels higher than 10 percent…until comprehensive and independent testing shows that higher ethanol blends are safe for consumers and do not harm the environment or public health,” said Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, who testified on behalf of the NPRA, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.
This year, the EPA will implement the blending of 11.1 billion gallons of biofuels into gasoline and diesel fuels, as mandated by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. Through the legislation’s Renewable Fuel Standard, the EPA requires the use of annually increasing volumes of renewable fuels, beginning with 9 billion gallons in 2008 and ramping up to 36 billion gallons in 2022.
Economic climate could make change difficult
The standard set almost three years ago does not fare well in today’s uncertain economy.
“These mandates allow no room for error in a fuels industry already constrained by tight credit, dwindling capacity, environmental regulation and volatile market conditions,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in a prepared statement last week.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration predicts that in 2009 gasoline demand will have declined a total of 10 percent from 2007 demand. Drevna said lower demand could lead to oversupply problems in the ethanol market.
“…Unless the use of mid-level ethanol blends is approved for use in non-flexible fuel engines, all additional corn ethanol production would be forced into the E85 marketplace, although demand for E85 remains relatively small…” he said.
For Iowa, the nation’s largest corn and ethanol-producing state, the renewable fuel has opened up a new market for corn producers and created hundreds of jobs across the state. The cash value of corn and soybeans produced in Iowa is about $10 billion and very important to the state’s economy and farmers, said DustinVande Hoef, communications director for the Iowa Department of Agriculture.
Iowa currently has 29 ethanol refineries with the capacity to produce nearly 2 billion gallons annually. Another 18 refineries are under construction or expansion and are expected to add nearly 1.4 billion gallons of annual capacity according to the state’s department of agriculture.
Options for meeting the standard
Margo Oge, director of transportation and air quality at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said in a statement prepared for last week’s hearing that the EPA could reach its aggressive Renewable Fuel Standard in several ways:
*Expand the use of ethanol in the form of E85
*Increase the use of non-ethanol renewable fuels that are not faced with the same blending limitation
*Raise the concentration of ethanol used in conventional vehicles and engines beyond the current E10 limit
Oge said the EPA is working with the U.S. Department of Energy to study the impacts of the use of mid-level ethanol blends in highway vehicles and non-road equipment, and hopes to complete that testing over the course of this year.
“We agree that science should dictate the blend, and that the science available will support higher blends of up to 15 percent today,” said Hartwig. “We think that testing will prove vehicles can handle a higher percentage of ethanol in gasoline.”
A testing period would also echo President Barack Obama’s remarks in a March 9 memo on scientific integrity.
“Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security,” Obama said.
The EPA has nine months to take action on the ethanol manufacturers’ petition for a waiver for the use of E15.
“It may be an intermediate step of E12 or E13 in the short term while EPA evaluates all the science,” Hartwig said. “But in the end, we believe that vehicles and most engines can operate safely on higher level ethanol blends.”
For now, the EPA will continue to solicit stakeholders on both sides of the debate for input on the use of higher fuel blends. The agency has no estimated date for when it will respond to the petition.