Industry calls E15 decision important step, more work to be done

By Holly Jessen | January 24, 2011

After nearly two years of waiting, the U.S. EPA has approved E15 use for all cars and pickups starting with model year 2001 and newer. Representatives from the ethanol industry greeted the Jan. 21 announcement with applause, closely followed by a reminder that there’s more work to be done.

“Today’s decision greenlights the use of E15 for nearly two out of every three cars on the road today and furthers proves ethanol is a safe, effective fuel choice for American drivers,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. “EPA continues to move in the right direction with respect to increasing ethanol blends, but challenges still remain. The RFA continues to urge EPA to extend the waiver for E15 use to all cars and pickups.”

The EPA said it won’t grant an E15 waiver for 2000 and older vehicles or motorcycles, heavy-duty vehicles or non-road engines—at least not this year. The U.S. DOE, which conducted testing on newer cars, did not conduct the same testing on 2000 and older vehicles, something many in the industry have asked the DOE to do. “There are many more steps we can take toward achieving our energy security and environmental goals,” said Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy. “We commend the EPA and we urge them to continue testing E15 for all vehicles, so that every American motorist has the opportunity to use a blend of fuel that is proven to be better for our economy, our security and our environment.”

Although the waiver has been approved, there’s also more work to be done before the fuel is legal for use in vehicles other than flex-fuel vehicles. Additional testing and regulatory issues, the same steps necessary for any new fuel, must be addressed before widespread use can happen. When pressed for more information during a media call Jan. 21 Buis declined to provide a specific timeline on when those steps would be completed. “Safe to say, we’re going to be pushing to have it available as soon as possible and as quickly as possible,” he said.

Moving to E15 will create a bigger market for U.S. ethanol, which could help create as many as 136,000 new jobs and eliminate as much as 8 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the air a year. It will also displace some of the 7 billion gallons of oil imported every day from countries such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. “It’s a huge step forward for national security,” said Growth Energy co-chair Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark.

The EPA’s decision means nearly 60 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet can now use E15. Buis referred to the EPA’s E15 approval for model year 2007 and newer cars, which was given in October, as a crack in the blend wall. “Today’s decision knocks a bigger hole in the wall and we’re not going to give up until we completely tear down that blend wall,” he said.

The American Coalition for Ethanol also called it a positive step forward but added it remained concerned about the EPA’s “piecemeal, partial-waiver approach.” That organization continues to press for E15 approval for all vehicles to help keep gas prices affordable. “ACE will also continue to push aggressively for policies that accelerate the roll-out of FFVs and blender pumps so that motorists can have more meaningful and cost-effective choices at the pump,” said Brian Jennings, executive vice president of ACE.

Poet LLC continued the theme of celebration tempered by looking forward to what still has to be done. The decision “opens the door” to solving the market barrier problem for ethanol, said Rob Skjonsberg, senior vice president of public policy and corporate affairs. The company also pointed to the need to institute Growth Energy’s Fueling Freedom Plan, which seeks to open the fuel market through expansion of blender pumps and FFVs. “We’re clearly moving forward, but significant hurdles remain before consumers can start using E15,” he added. “Research supports approval of E15 for all vehicles. We knew this two years ago when the industry submitted the waiver.”

There were many others watching and waiting on the E15 announcement. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the E15 decision an important step in getting current ethanol production into the marketplace and supporting the industry so it can grow and mature. He also pointed to job creation, the environment and improved national security.  “Expanding the use of E15 in America's vehicle fleet gives consumers the option of purchasing domestically produced renewable transportation fuels and also support America's farmers and ranchers," he said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley said the EPA did the right thing by expanding approval of the E15 waiver. “I’ve been frustrated with the amount of time it’s taken the EPA to reach these decisions, and I’d still like to see a waiver for E15 use in all vehicles, but I also appreciate that the EPA administrator has made certain to base the decisions on sound science, which puts the waiver decision in a very strong position against court challenges from opponents,” Grassley said.

Of course, not everyone was happy with the EPA’s decision. Although it was delayed by the EPA multiple times, the American Petroleum Institute called it a “rush to judgment” and warned it could put consumers at risk. “An interim report by the auto and oil industries released just this week has revealed potential performance problems that require further testing before E15 can be deemed safe to use in vehicles,” said Bob Greco, API’s director of downstream operations. “EPA is choosing to ignore the potential red flags in its headlong rush to extend a premature waiver.”

National Petrochemical & Refiners Association’s reaction was more of the same. "EPA has acted without adequate scientific evidence to endanger the gasoline-powered engines used by millions of Americans in their vehicles and outdoor power equipment,” the group said in a statement. “Widespread use of 15 percent ethanol in gasoline could cause engine failures that could leave consumers stranded, injured or worse, and hit consumers with costly engine repairs. It's the wrong decision, at the wrong time, made for the wrong reasons.”