No Better Time than Now

In August, the American Coalition for Ethanol’s annual conference convened in person. The agenda was wide-ranging, but protecting year-round E15, stopping 'runaway' SREs, and emphasizing ethanol's ability to compete with EVs topped the program.
By Anna Simet | September 21, 2021

While “accelerate” was the theme of the American Coalition for Ethanol’s 34th annual conference—market growth being vital—the myriad policy, investment and operational issues explored at the event orbited largely around the industry’s overarching low-carbon ambitions. And with the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) seeming imminent, ACE leaders tackled the central question of why policymakers and consumers remain fixated on emerging climate change solutions when ethanol and other biofuels are here today and widely available. That and related concerns were thoroughly and thoughtfully dissected during the opening general session, which began with remarks by Dave Sovereign, ACE president.

Despite the big push toward EVs and their seemingly pristine image, lawmakers and consumers generally have a murky understanding of the many challenges that accompany their widespread adoption, said Sovereign, who pointed out the irony in using EVs that run on power generated from fossil fuels. “People see the clean, green car and are excited,” he said. “But what’s behind the curtain? They don’t see that the electricity is being generated from coal. And how are the batteries going to be disposed of? The public doesn’t know this, and some choose not to know.”

Sovereign continued, “We also have to wonder about all the applications—are they practical? Pickups pulling campers, boats, livestock trailers … is it really practical in every application, and to totally eliminate the internal combustion engine?”

During an extreme heatwave this summer, Californians were asked to avoid charging EVs to protect the grid. Sovereign suggested this problem indicates the electrical grid needs a tremendous amount of investment and upgrades to withstand the kind of load that is expected with widespread EV adoption, work that will take years to complete. One of the industry’s priorities should be to educate the public that clean-burning fuel like ethanol is also an alternative, Sovereign said. He concluded his remarks by emphasizing that even though the industry is very active in promoting itself, considering the big push for EVs, there is not a more critical time to actively participate in low-carbon and greenhouse gas conversations. “When lawmakers and policymakers come around, we need to be active and get in front of them,” he said. “Get engaged, and participate.”

Overcoming Obstacles
Following Sovereign, Brian Jennings, ACE CEO, steered the conversation to longstanding and new industry hurdles, and the organization’s continued work to help members overcome them. “Have we encountered some roadblocks? Nearly 100 small refinery exemptions (SREs), a global pandemic, back-to-back courtroom losses and irrational exuberance for EVs—if those qualify, then yes, we have.”

As for SREs, it may seem as though the Supreme Court is keeping the flood gates open for them, Jennings said. He was referring to the June 25 reversal of the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling that the U.S. EPA can extend SREs to small refineries whose earlier temporary exemptions had lapsed. “[But] They simply ruled that refineries can seek waivers at any time—that’s it. The justices did not make it easier for refiners to get waivers, and they did not say the U.S. EPA must rubber stamp every exemption request they get. In fact, so long as the EPA adheres to other limits set by the Tenth Circuit—limits that make those exemptions harder to obtain—the days of runaway SREs should be over. Biden’s EPA must judiciously act, using the precedent applied by the Tenth Circuit Court on the 60-plus refinery waivers that are currently pending.”

Moving onto the topic of E15, Jennings said that in early July, the D.C. Circuit Court invalidated the EPA’s 2019 rule to allow year-round E15 sales. “Obviously, losing the conventional gasoline marketplace from June to September could significantly undermine ethanol demand,” he said. “That’s why there is a real sense of urgency to pursue all legislative, legal and regulatory options at our disposal to ensure we keep E15 use year-round.”

Jennings highlighted the bipartisan E15 legislation sponsored by Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig—who was at the event and later took the stage—and said there is hopeful optimism that she or other supporters in Congress will find a way to attach it to the infrastructure appropriations bill, the omnibus spending bill or any other legislation between now and next summer. Appeals have already been filed, he said, and ACE expects E15 to continue to be on the market. “Just last week, ACE sent a letter to President Biden indicating the quickest way to reduce greenhouse gasses is to ensure uninterrupted market access for E15 and set maximum volumes under the RFS,” Jennings said. “Let’s face it, the past two administrations have sided with refiners to undermine the RFS as law, and that has undercut and limited the use of low-carbon biofuels. As they ponder what to do about the 2021 and 2022 RVOs (renewable volume obligations), the Biden Administration has a choice to make: Follow the law or help refiners escape. It really is that simple.”

If the Biden administration is not willing to ensure the RFS calls for 15 billion gallons of low-carbon ethanol that is already being produced and able to replace petroleum at the pump, Jennings continued, legitimate questions will and should be asked about the merits of nonbinding goals for less-deployable technologies. “And yes—I’m talking about EVs.”

Referencing a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Jennings said scientific consensus is that time is running out to take meaningful action to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use and avoid the worst effects of climate change. Though some believe Biden and Congress’s laser focus on reaching net zero emissions by 2050 could mean the end of internal combustion engines and liquid fuels, Jennings said ACE is confident that ethanol is the best low-carbon alternative to petroleum that provides meaningful GHG reductions. “In other words, we refuse to concede the climate conversation to EVs,” he said. “That is why we have been highlighting how smart farming practices, efficiencies at the ethanol plants and the capture and sequestration of biogenic CO2 from facilities can help ethanol on this unique trajectory, to not only reach net zero emissions, but net negative emissions.”

Jennings said ACE has also helped mobilize diverse coalitions comprised of environmental groups and EV advocates to propose new, technology-neutral, clean fuel policy at state and federal levels to ensure a growing market for ethanol, even as overall petroleum use shrinks or declines. “To those who are uncomfortable with this low-carbon strategy and prefer to hunker down instead of protecting the fuel market from EVs, I have a question: Why place it into the hands of refiners? If we have an opportunity to expand ethanol use by decarbonizing liquid fuels, why would we spend time and resources trying to protect the status quo, which limits our market to just 10%? I am concerned there are plenty of politicians and groups fantasizing that this is their moment to get rid of internal combustion engines, and yes, the use of liquid fuels, but here is the thing about fantasies—they aren’t real.”

Jennings concluded his remarks by encouraging the industry to go on the offense and strategize to get elected leaders to realize that increasing the use of ethanol today will immediately benefit the climate and make achieving the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 much more attainable. “We can start making progress right now with low-carbon ethanol—that is a message ACE intends to deliver over and over again,” he added. “While we’re at it, we intend to hold elected leaders accountable. Do they really want to reduce greenhouse gasses? Or do they just want to talk about it?”

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Answering Compatibility Questions

Ron Lamberty, senior vice president of ACE, highlighted the success of ACE’s Flex Check online tool, flexfuelforward.com, launched in September 2020. Focused on making it easy and convenient for fuel retailers to determine if their equipment is E15 compatible, the tool was built off National Renewable Energy Lab studies and ACE’s research with other companies.

By entering the manufacturer or model number of tanks, piping and other equipment, retailers can identify compatible parts and equipment, and ensure the equipment they are told needs replacing actually needs to be. “We knew the number of compatible E15 sites was a huge number,” Lamberty said. “In fact, almost all underground storage tanks and lines installed since 1994 are compatible with 100% ethanol … We know widespread E15 use can only happen with massive conversion of stations, not just putting in new stuff.”

Lamberty said out of approximately 150,000 U.S. gas stations, approximately 120,000 could sell E15 with little or no expense. “We wanted to make sure they knew it,” he said, adding that over 31,000 users have accessed Flex Check since it was introduced.

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Author: Anna Simet
Contact: editor@bbiinternational.com