The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week announced it has taken a step toward wide distribution of gasoline mixed with 15 percent ethanol by allowing manufacturers to register as suppliers. According to the Associated Press, the 20 ethanol makers that have registered to sell this “E15” blend so far include large corn manufacturers like Cargill and ConAgra. According to the industry trade group Renewable Fuels Association, Midwestern states that have started the regulatory process could see E15 for sale as early as this summer. Many argue plant-based ethanol isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. What’s the rush?
According to Tom Buis, CEO of ethanol industry trade group Growth Energy, the E15 urgency is due to the same reason we’ve heard before: “Our nation needs E15 to reduce our dependence on foreign oil — it will keep gas prices down at the pump and help to end the extreme fluctuations in gas prices caused by our reliance on fuel from unstable parts of the world.”
Then there’s folks like Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, who believe the opposite and are fighting the government’s E15 efforts in court. According to the Associated Press, Drevna believes rushing E15 to market could endanger American consumers by potentially damaging their vehicles and gasoline-powered equipment. Fuel with higher ethanol content can damage engines not equipped with upgraded rubber parts, gaskets and other fittings.
But, according to a recent Forbes article titled How a Dumb Law Blocks A Great Way To Fuel America, the problem isn’t science — it’s Washington. A recent law prohibits companies like Celanese, maker of coal- and natural gas-based ethanol, from getting a seat at the E15 table. Here’s more from Forbes:
Thanks to the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard law, gasoline refiners are mandated to blend so much plant-based or renewable ethanol into the gas supply that it prevents Celanese or any other fossil-fuel-based ethanols from even competing for the market. Though the RFS caps the blending of corn ethanol at 15 billion gallons a year, it calls for total biofuels blending to grow to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022.
“We have the best gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids technology in the world,” Steven Sterin, president of Celanese, told Forbes. Unfortunately for Sterin, the corn-dominated ethanol lobby is conflicted about making ethanol out of fossil fuels.
On one hand, corn growers don’t want competition from cheap gas. On the other, it’s in the national interest to cut oil imports. “We’re supportive of expanding all renewables and all alternative fuels,” says Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association. Says Joe Cannon, president of the Fuel Freedom Foundation: “We need every option. There are 2 billion people moving from bicycles to mopeds to cars, and that’s just in India and China.”
With a rising number of big businesses like General Motors suddenly deciding that climate change is a real problem, the pressure will be on for the ethanol industry to get its act together.