EPA Approves Use of 15-Percent Ethanol Blend for 2007 and Newer Cars and Trucks

By Scott Doggett October 13, 2010

By Scott Doggett, Contributing Editor

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled today that E15 - a blend of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline - can be used for 2007 model-year and newer vehicles.

The decision was immediately criticized by the Renewable Fuels Association, a major trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry. The association accused the EPA of missing an opportunity to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil and create new economic opportunity by limiting its decision on E15 to only 2007-present vehicles.

"EPA's scientifically unjustified bifurcation of the U.S. car market will do little to move the needle and expand ethanol use today," said RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen. "Limiting E15 use to 2007 and newer vehicles only creates confusion for retailers and consumers alike."

But Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers,  called today's ruling a "premature decision" that shouldn't have been made until comprehensive testing was completed to insure that the higher blends of ethanol don't corrode engines.

"It's in nobody's interest - not the government, not automakers, not the fueling industry or the ethanol industry - to take this step if there are going to be performance problems," Bergquist said. She said automakers could also face warranty issues.

Presently, only E10 has been permitted in the nation's gas pumps. Ethanol is widely used as a gasoline additive to increase combustion and, recently, there has been increased pressure on the agency to use the controversial fuel to reduce the amount of oil consumed in the U.S.

Limitation Waived

The EPA today waived a limitation on selling fuel that is more than 10 percent ethanol for model-year 2007 and newer cars and light trucks, increasing the limit to 15 percent ethanol.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson made the decision after a review of the Department of Energy's extensive testing and other available data on E15's impact on engine durability and emissions, the agency said in a statement.

"Thorough testing has now shown that E15 does not harm emissions control equipment in newer cars and light trucks," she said in the statement.

A decision on the use of E15 in model-year 2001 to 2006 vehicles will be made after EPA receives the results of additional DOE testing, which Jackson said was expected to be completed next month.

The EPA said no waiver would be granted this year for E15 use in model-year 2000 and older cars and light trucks - or in any motorcycles, heavy-duty vehicles, or non-road engines - because insufficient testing has been done to support such a waiver. Since 1979, a blend of up to 10 percent ethanol has been used for all conventional cars and light trucks, and non-road vehicles.

'Correct Fuels'

The EPA said that several steps are being taken to help consumers easily identify the "correct fuel for their vehicles and equipment."

These include: an agency proposal requiring that E15 pumps be labeled; 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.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandated an increase in the overall volume of renewable fuels into the U.S. marketplace reaching a 36 billion gallon total in 2022. Ethanol is considered a renewable fuel because it is produced from plant products or wastes and not from fossil fuels.

The E15 petition was submitted to EPA by Growth Energy and 54 ethanol manufacturers in March 2009. The petition was submitted under a Clean Air Act provision that allows EPA to waive the act's prohibition against the sale of a significantly altered fuel if the petitioner shows that the new fuel will not cause or contribute to the failure of the engine parts that ensure compliance with the act's emissions limits.

In a statement, Growth Energy said today that "while there are those in the industry who may look at this decision from a glass is half empty approach, we see this is a real opportunity for lasting change."

The group said today's decision will help the domestic ethanol industry meet its greatest potential - to help our country achieve our energy security goals by reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

"The decision on 2007 and newer model years will apply to 43 million vehicles -  nearly 20 percent of the current U.S. duty fleet. A decision on cars 2001 to 2006 would add an additional 86 million cars, meaning that E15 could be allowed in more than 54 percent of all the vehicles on the road today," the group said.

Lobbying Hard

For well over a year, the ethanol industry has been lobbying Congress and the EPA to approve E15 for use in all passenger vehicles across the nation. Almost all gasoline in the U.S. is now an E10 blend, the ethanol added as an oxygenator to help improve gasoline combustion.

But a coalition of major auto and motorcycle makers and manufacturers of gasoline-powered off-road products such as jet skis and emergency generators have opposed the idea, saying that the additional ethanol - an alcohol fuel - could damage metal, plastic and rubber parts in older vehicles' fuel systems and for non-automotive as engines that were not designed to use ethanol.

Following today's ruling, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute advised outdoor power equipment users to be aware that E15 could harm equipment sitting in their garages, tool sheds and maintenance buildings. "Over 200 million pieces of outdoor power equipment could be at risk of product failure or voided warranty, including chainsaws, lawnmowers, utility vehicles, generators, snow throwers, trimmers, edgers, pruners, chippers, shredders and blowers," it said.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Convenience Stores, which represents the convenience and petroleum retailing industry, which sells an estimated 80 percent of the motor fuels purchased in the U.S., said today's ruling does nothing to remove retailers' obligations to ensure that all of their equipment is lawfully certified to store and sell the fuel.

"Limiting E15 use to only vehicles manufactured since 2007 could expose retailers to significant liability risk if a consumer were to fuel a non-approved engine with E15," the association said, noting that despite the EPA's action today fuels retailers are only authorized to sell fuel that contains up to 10 percent ethanol.

Environmental groups also have voiced strong opposition to the effort to increase use of ethanol, maintaining that production of the fuel - which is made from corn in the U.S. and from sugar cane in Brazil and other tropical climates - is environmentally damaging and can lead to a reduction in land devoted to growing food crops.

Various green groups were quick to find fault with the EPA's decision, including at least one that said it would likely pose a frustration to drivers.

"We're really going to make the consumers a guinea pig here," said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group that opposes increases in the fuel. "Have we really thought through what it's going to take to distinguish E15 to E10?"

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