EPA takes risky step to increase ethanol blend

Later today, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce that it will raise the limit on the amount of ethanol fuel refiners can blend into gasoline, allowing ethanol levels in gasoline blends to be as high as 15% in vehicles made since 2007, up from 10% currently. Though seen as a win for corn ethanol lobby groups like Growth Energy, the new ethanol blends, known as E15, come with serious risks for our engines, wildlife, water, and the air we all breathe.

A broad coalition of environmentalists, public health advocates, livestock ranchers, and automakers have long opposed EPA’s move, calling on Congress and the administration to follow the science and conduct more thorough testing of the impacts of higher ethanol blends on air pollution before approving E15 gasoline. These groups have pointed to serious environmental and public health concerns around the tailpipe emissions of vehicles that run on gasoline blended with ethanol. Burning ethanol can cause toxic air pollutants to be emitted from vehicle tailpipes, especially at higher blend levels like E15. The chemistry is fairly straightforward: ethanol burns hotter than gasoline, causing catalytic converters to break down faster. Cars with broken tailpipe controls are disproportionally responsible for air pollution from vehicles.

Newer vehicles have oxygen sensors which allow them to adjust combustion and protect the catalysts, but there has been a lack of sufficient testing of E15 blends in older vehicles. Supporters of EPA’s decision will argue that by allowing E15 blends only in newer vehicles made after 2007, EPA is mitigating these air pollution concerns. But this “pump first, ask questions later” attitude is unlikely to work in the real world. Even well-intentioned safeguards have to be implemented well in order to actually protect public health. With millions of individual drivers filling their cars each day, it seems unlikely that EPA—or fuel retailers—will be able to prevent a whole lot of misfueling at the pump. Fueling older cars with the new blend could result in serious damage to those engines, potentially voiding warranties and raising the specter of consumer lawsuits. Corn ethanol advocates clearly agree, since they’ve been pushing hard for a liability waiver for oil companies and retailers that would protect them from ethanol-related lawsuits when drivers inevitably fill their tanks with the wrong fuel.

EPA’s decision on E15 also raises serious concerns about public safety and the safety of our environment, and increases the risk that corn ethanol will continue to dominate the market for biofuels and pollute our environment. Despite a massive campaign by the corn ethanol industry to deny its polluting record and push for ever more government support, public support is clearly waning, as more Americans stand up and say that we don’t need more old, dirty corn ethanol, or the higher food prices and deforestation that come with it. What we need are energy policies that lay the groundwork for a transition to the newer, cleaner advanced biofuels that will actually deliver more green jobs, more energy security and more environmental benefits. Instead of focusing on policies that continue to prop up the mature corn ethanol industry and lock yet another old, dirty fuel into the marketplace, the administration must focus on moving us beyond corn ethanol by shifting support to policies such as the Greener Biofuel Tax Credit and Billion Gallon Challenge that we've written about before.

About the Authors

Nathanael Greene

Senior Renewable Energy Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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