E10, E15 and the Ethanol Blend Wall

To date, ethanol (derived from corn starch, sugar cane or other agricultural feedstocks) is the renewable fuel that is most widely commercially available. Its use as a transportation fuel has been promoted by government policies around the world that either mandate the blending of ethanol into gasoline in certain percentages, or which allow such blending up to specified maximum blend percentages. From time to time in this blog, I’ll discuss such government policies around the world. Today’s post will discuss the U.S. government’s decision in 2011 to allow ethanol blends of up to 15% to be used in a significant portion of the nation’s automobiles. A companion posting today in my  “Biofuel Policy Watch” blog will discuss some of the public policy implications and controversies surrounding E15.

Overview: U.S. fuel certification

In the U.S., specified maximum ethanol blends have been established under the legal requirement that any fuel or fuel additive that is to be sold in the U.S. must first be registered with EPA under regulations specified in 40 CFR Part 79. This is required of all fuels or additives and is over and above what may be required under other federal laws (e.g. qualification as a renewable fuel under the Renewable Fuel Standards). These regulations are meant to ensure that fuels and fuel additives have the appropriate chemical composition and that they will not result in adverse effects on engine performance, air emissions, or other health and safety concerns, although for familiar additives like ethanol the requirements are somewhat relaxed. Ethanol has historically been registered as a gasoline additive (i.e., originally as an oxygenate), and so all U.S. manufacturers of fuel ethanol have had their products approved by EPA as a fuel additive. This process is fairly straightforward, with a short turn-around time at EPA.

Until recently, EPA regulations specified that ethanol could not be blended into conventional gasoline above 10% by volume (“E10”), and most gasoline sold in the U.S. contains ethanol blends of up to 10%. In addition, several states have laws allowing, or requiring, gasoline to be blended with up to 10% ethanol. However, this limitation created the so-called “blend wall” for ethanol – since only so many gallons of gasoline are sold in the U.S. each year (a number which has actually been decreasing as fuel efficiency of the automotive fleet has improved) there was an absolute ceiling for ethanol use that could not be exceeded even if 100% of U.S. gasoline stocks were blended with ethanol to the maximum 10%. This is widely perceived as an obstacle to the adoption of increased amounts of ethanol in the U.S. market, as well as an obstacle to the industry’s ability to meet the rising annual volume mandates for ethanol under the Renewable Fuel Standard, leading to calls for EPA to revise its regulations to allow a greater percentage of ethanol in gasoline.

E15 Approval and Conditions for its Use

Over the past two years, EPA has taken several actions that have allowed the sale of gasoline blended with up to 15% ethanol by volume (“E15”) under certain conditions. In response to a 2009 petition submitted by Growth Energy and 54 ethanol manufacturers, EPA granted partial waivers under the Clean Air Act to begin to pave the way for E15 use. The first waiver, in October 2010, allowed the use of E15 first in light-duty vehicles of model year 2007 or later, and the second waiver, coming in January 2011, allowed use of E15 in light-duty vehicles of model years 2001-2006. EPA denied the petition’s request asking for E15 to be allowed in vehicles of model year 2000 or older. Other vehicles or engines for which E15 was not approved include motorcycles, vehicles with heavy-duty engines, such as school buses, all off-road vehicles, such as boats and snowmobiles and all engines in off-road equipment, such as lawnmowers and chain saws, as well as light-duty trucks and SUVs.

These partial waivers were followed by issuance of a final rule in July 2011 that specified the conditions to allow the sale and use of E15 for the approved classes of vehicles. However, the final rule and the requirements of the Part 79 regulations impose some requirements on companies hoping to gain approval to sell ethanol for blending into E15. First, any company that wishes to certify an ethanol fuel for blending up to 15% must indicate that it is relying on a package of health effects data, developed by the Renewable Fuels Association and Growth Energy and approved by EPA in February 2012. Although this is done by merely checking off a box on the application form, it allows applicants to easily comply with a requirement under the Clean Air Act and the Part 79 regulations. In addition, vendors have to adopt a Misfueling Mitigation Plan to ensure that consumers do not accidentally use E15 in vehicles older than model year 2001 – this involves special labeling of E15 pumps and other procedures, and EPA has given its blessing to a model mitigation program developed by RFA that is available to be used by all applicants. EPA is also requiring E15 manufacturers to participate in an EPA-approved survey of compliance with several E15-related requirements, including pump labeling and fuel specifications. On May 4, 2012, the RFG Survey Association  submitted for EPA approval the2012 E15 Compliance Survey Plan,” which EPA subsequently approved, and which is available for allE15 manufacturers or retailers. Finally, there is another potential limitation to E15, which is that a different gasoline blendstock may need to be used for E15 for commercial sale during summer months, because EPA has not granted E15 the same waiver as it did for E10 to allow the blended fuel to exceed limits on the Reid Vapor Pressure during the hotter months of the year.

These requirements have not proven burdensome to the industry and to date, EPA has issued approvals to 79 different companies granting the right to blend ethanol, or manufacture ethanol for blending, up to 15% (as of the EPA website, accessed on January 7, 2013), and efforts are underway to begin selling E15 on a significant scale. Over the next several years, the move to E15 should help expand the market and continue to support increased production of ethanol as required under the yearly volume mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard. However, this will not be easy or quick, and some of the issues that will be faced are described below.

EPA’s action to approve E15 led to the drawing of familiar battle lines, pitting the ethanol and industry and the biofuels community on one side, and the petroleum industry, certain auto and engine manufacturers, among others, on the opposing side. In the two years or so since EPA action first cleared the way for E15, these opposing forces have lined up to make their arguments to the public about the pros and cons of this fuel. Please see my companion blog post for a discussion of the more significant issues that have been brought up in the public debate so far that may limit or delay the market acceptance of E15.

Among the many online resources for further information on E15 are the RFA website, Growth Energy’s website, and http://www.e15fuel.org, an informational site set up by the RFA.

D. Glass Associates, Inc. is a consulting company specializing in government and regulatory support for renewable fuels and industrial biotechnology. David Glass, Ph.D. is a veteran of over thirty years in the biotechnology industry, with expertise in industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, U.S. and international renewable fuels regulation, patents, technology licensing, and market and technology assessments. Dr. Glass also serves as director of regulatory affairs for Joule Unlimited Technologies, Inc. More information on D. Glass Associates’ government and regulatory consulting capabilities, and copies of some of Dr. Glass’s prior presentations on biofuels and biotechnology regulation, are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99 and at www.dglassassociates.com. The views expressed in this blog are those of Dr. Glass and D. Glass Associates and do not represent the views of Joule Unlimited Technologies, Inc. or any other organization with which Dr. Glass is affiliated. Please visit our other blog, Biofuel Policy Watch.

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