EPA's E15 waiver--even EPA knows it threatens the air we breathe

In a disappointing announcement Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency said that it would partially waive the limitation on selling gasoline blended with more than 10% ethanol, increasing the limit to 15% for model year 2007 and newer vehicles. The move was in response to a March, 2009 petition by Growth Energy and other corn ethanol industry groups.

As I discussed here, a broad coalition has long opposed this increase in blend limits, known as E15, citing a lack of adequate testing of the impacts of higher ethanol blends on toxic air pollution from broken tailpipes. This is particularly problematic for older vehicles, which are not fitted with technologies that help them adapt to ethanol’s corrosive impacts on tailpipes. Environmentalists, public health advocates and auto manufacturers have long pointed to this risk of increased tailpipe emissions and insisted that EPA follow the science and do more testing of E15 blends on all vehicles, not just newer models, before granting any waiver, full or partial. A partial waiver, the groups have argued, would do little to mitigate these concerns and only increase confusion at the pump, where implementation of the new rules for some vehicles but not others would be confusing for consumers and lead to widespread risk of misfueling in older cars, damaging their engines, potentially voiding their warranties, increasing consumer lawsuits and liability concerns on the part of car manufacturers and fuel retailers, and posing a serious threat to public health and the environment.

The full details of the partial waiver can be found here, but one of the important discussions is found in a document way at the bottom of the page, titled “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking”. [Warning: this document is long and technical but worth a look, as it represents EPA’s own understanding of the harmful air pollution and ozone impacts of E15 and its responsibility to protect the public against these impacts].

It is here that EPA discusses its authority under the Clean Air Act to “control or prohibit the manufacture, introduction into commerce, offering for sale, or sale” of any fuel or fuel additive whose emissions contribute to air pollution, “which may be reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”, or whose emissions products “will impair to a significant degree the performance of any emission control device or system which is in general use.” EPA then goes on to say it believes E15 meets both these criteria when used in older vehicles and that the potential increase in emissions of dangerous pollutants like hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides would contribute to air pollution levels that could violate National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone or particulate matter.

Translation?  EPA knows E15 causes dangerous air pollution, including harmful ozone impacts, particularly when used in older cars, and that it is responsible for protecting the public from this pollution by keeping E15 blends out of these cars.  The critical question then is: how does EPA plan to prevent E15 from being used in older vehicles and can we expect EPA’s proposed plan to actually meet this challenge in practice?

As part of its announcement, EPA acknowledged the risk of misfueling and said it was taking several steps to help consumers easily identify the correct fuel for their vehicles and equipment. These include proposing E15 pump labeling requirements, including a requirement that the fuel industry specify the ethanol content of gasoline sold to retailers and a quarterly survey of retail stations to help ensure their gas pumps are properly labeled.

For those interested in reading the full rule, titled “Regulation To Prevent the Misfueling of Vehicles and Engines With Gasoline Containing Greater Than Ten Volume Percent Ethanol and Modifications to the Reformulated and Conventional Gasoline Programs”, you can find it here.  But you don’t have to go beyond the abstract to see that with nearly 70% of American vehicles older than model year 2007, the answer to that critical question is no:

“Vehicles or engines not certified or approved for E10+ may experience increased emissions of criteria pollutants and accelerated deterioration of emission control systems due to higher oxygen content from increased ethanol levels. These emissions increases will have an adverse effect on air quality and public health due to known relationships between regulated pollutants and the formation of ground level ozone.”

What this makes clear is that relying on consumer labels at the pump and surveys of gas stations is a hopelessly inadequate response given the magnitude of the threat to public health and the environment of E15 blends. EPA’s repeated acknowledgements of the risks associated with E15 call into questions its own case for approving the E15 waiver for 2007 and more recent model year vehicles without having a fail-safe, credible way to ensure that misfueling of E10+ fuels will not occur in unapproved and uncertified vehicles.