Barnstorming for Summertime E15

Becoming the fourth consecutive U.S. president to visit an ethanol plant, Biden offered broad support for corn ethanol, biorefining and agriculture after announcing a historic emergency fuel waiver enabling uninterrupted E15 sales this summer.
By EPM Staff | May 17, 2022

By emergency decree in mid-April, E15’s off-and-on summertime restrictions were lifted—for now—amid high gas prices, inflation and Russia’s war on Ukraine. And while President Joe Biden stood within the DDGS-filled “halls” of an ethanol plant in Iowa to discuss the action, an occasion typically met with considerable pomp or rally—the industry offered this leader, this time, gracious but somewhat qualified appreciation. Biden’s E15 order was, after all, a little overdue and mostly a reaction to voter pocketbook issues amid what the administration calls “Putin’s price hike.” The environmental benefits of blending more ethanol—climate, carbon reduction, etc.—didn’t really seem in play. But then, speaking from that “barn” in Iowa, Biden not only acknowledged E15’s benefits beyond price, but wholly endorsed ethanol and biorefining.

It wasn’t just climate that the administration seemed to initially downplay in its April 12 emergency fuel waiver announcement, but farming, coproducts and rural economic development. But Biden would eventually reference all of those things, and more. While announcing the waiver, the administration specifically focused on alleviating high fuel prices while also mentioning energy security. The White House said the emergency waiver would help increase fuel supplies, give consumers more choices at the pump and help U.S. households spend less on gas this summer.

“At current prices, E15 can save a family 10 cents per gallon of gas on average, and many stores sell E15 at an even greater discount,” the White House said in a fact sheet supporting the president’s action. “For working families—families eager to travel and visit their loved ones—that will add up to real savings. Allowing higher levels of blending will also reduce our dependency on foreign fuels as we rely more heavily on home-grown biofuels. This will help us bridge towards real energy independence.”

The White House said E15 sales would be allowed to continue this summer as soon as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially issued an emergency waiver, which it did on April 29—about a month before E15 restrictions would have otherwise began. It also announced the daily release of 1 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve for six straight months. Other countries have made similar commitments in a global attempt to try keep prices down while oil production ramps up.

Outside of corn country, the president’s E15 announcement was met by mostly ineffectual criticism from groups concerned about issues like food vs. fuel, amplified by the war in Ukraine. The usual critics of ethanol pointed out the “drop-in-the-bucket” difference that 5 percent more ethanol at 2 percent of the nation’s gas stations would have on consumer spending on fuel this year. Indeed, while E15 is available for use in all model-year 2001 and newer vehicles—which represents 245 million cars and trucks on the road in the U.S. (90% of all light-duty passenger vehicles)—it’s only available at about 2,500 gas stations nationwide. The blend’s retail presence has been steadily growing, but unquestionably hampered by interruptions in the summer when it historically could not be sold in most markets from June 1 through Sept. 15—due to antiquated regulations centered around Reid vapor pressure (“Clearing the Air on E15 and Smog,” on page 8, helps explain that).

An EPA rulemaking mid-2019, under the Trump administration, gave E15 the same RVP waiver that E10 enjoys, allowing uninterrupted retail sales of the higher blend. But that rulemaking was challenged by oil groups, and as a result last summer, it was partially vacated by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, preventing a majority of retailers from selling E15 year-round. Now, the Biden administration’s emergency action provides a temporary bridge for E15 sales to continue this summer while permanent solutions are explored.

At press time in early May, EPA was still considering additional actions to facilitate the use of E15 year-round, including working with states that have expressed interest in allowing year-round use of the blend. Prior to the emergency fuel waiver, at least two states had petitioned the EPA to use its emergency waiver authority to allow E15 sales to continue. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt on April 4—less than two weeks before the waiver announcement—sent a letter to Regan asking him to exercise the EPA’s emergency waiver authority under Section 211(c)(4)(C)(ii) of the Clean Air Act to waive the 9-psi RVP limitation for E15 for the 2022 summer ozone control season. On April 28, eight Midwest governors from both political parties notified the EPA that they are exercising the authority granted to them under the Clean Air Act to forgo the statutory summertime E10 waiver starting in 2023, which would allow retailers and marketers in their states to permanently sell E15 year-round.

Looking back, the emergency waiver was not a complete surprise. A week before Biden’s announcement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan hinted at the possibility of it happening when he appeared in front of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. There, Regan confirmed that the Biden administration was looking at every available tool to provide relief for high fuel prices. And he said summertime E15 was on the table. “We are currently evaluating what flexibilities we have around E15,” he said. “This is a conversation that I and Secretary [Tom] Vilsack have been having quite a bit as of late. So, I can tell you that we are evaluating what Clean Air Act authorities we have to potentially take advantage of E15.”
Seven days later, Biden was on his way to Iowa on Air Force One.

Another Presidential Visit
According to Ethanol Producer Magazine’s archives, Biden is the fourth consecutive U.S. president to visit an ethanol plant while in office. Notably, three of the four visits occurred in April; two visits were related to summertime E15 use; and two were at POET facilities. 

President George W. Bush visited Dakota Ethanol LLC in Wentworth, South Dakota, in April of 2002—just seven months after 9/11. President Barack Obama visited POET’s Macon, Missouri, biorefinery in April of 2010 (note: before taking office, Obama was the keynote speaker at the grand opening of the Charles City, Iowa, ethanol plant now owned and operated by Valero). And, in June of 2019, President Donald Trump visited Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to celebrate the final rule issued by the EPA to lift restrictions on year-round sales of E15—without the authority of an emergency fuel waiver.

This time, just a day after making the E15 announcement, President Biden flew to Iowa to discuss it, using POET’s 150 MMgy biorefinery in Menlo, Iowa, as an ideal agri-industrial backdrop. He spoke from inside  a coproduct storage building with not only distillers grains behind him, but also an American flag flanked by two John Deere tractors.    

“I’m here today to talk about the work we’re doing to lower costs for American families and put rural America at the center of our efforts to build a future that is made in America,” Biden said. “That is not hyperbole—it’s about being made in America. A lot of that has do with this industry.”

Surprisingly, Biden took time to rattle off the benefits of biorefining. First, he said, it supports farmers and the farm economy. “Knowing you have a buyer gives farmers something you don’t often have—peace of mind, certitude about where their product can be sold and to get a fair price for it,” he said. Second, biorefineries create good paying jobs. “It’s estimated that there are over 400,000 jobs directly and indirectly supported by this industry nationwide,” Biden said. “That’s a lot of people, and a lot of paychecks—and good decent paychecks.” Third, biorefineries reduce our reliance on foreign oil by stretching the fuel supply, and fourth, they give consumers choice at the pump, which creates competition that reduces prices, he added. “In addition to that … you get lower greenhouse gas emissions,” Biden continued, noting that biorefineries also produce important coproducts, such as the DDGS behind him.

“I’m here today because homegrown biofuels have a role to play right now as we work to get prices under control and reduce the price to families,” the president said, adding that “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up gas prices and food prices all over the world. … We need to address this challenge with urgency … Your family budget—your ability to fill up your tank—none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war or commits genocide half a world away.”

Biden continued, “With this waiver, on June 1, you’re not going to show up at your local gas station and see a bag over the pump that has the cheapest gas. You are going to be able to keep filling up with E15 … [the emergency waiver] is not going to solve all our problems, but it’s going to help some people, and I’m committed to doing whatever I can to help.”

The ethanol plant in Menlo is one of POET’s 33 bioethanol production facilities. POET—the largest ethanol producer in the world—has a combined annual production capacity of 3 billion gallons. Thanking President Biden, POET founder and CEO Jeff Broin said E15 can immediately save consumers not just 10 cents per gallon, but as much as 50 to 70 cents—and offset 6.2 billion gallons of gasoline.

“Every driver should have the freedom to choose a fuel that’s better for their wallet, their health and the environment,” Broin said. “Plant-based bioethanol is the only liquid fuel that can check all those boxes, and it’s produced by Americans, for Americans, right here in the Heartland. … We are grateful to President Biden for following through on his commitment to deliver lower-carbon, lower-cost fuel options to the American people, and for allowing the POET team to share in the celebration of this major win for consumers and for America’s energy security.”

Association Response
Growth Energy, which not only represents POET but dozens of other U.S. ethanol producers, thanked Biden for temporarily lifting restrictions on summer E15 sales. “This is welcome news for all American drivers seeking lower cost options at the pump,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy. “Lifting outdated and unnecessary summertime restrictions on E15 will ensure continued access to a fuel that has been saving drivers as much as 50 to 60 cents a gallon in recent weeks, offering working families relief at the pump at a time when they need it most. … We are grateful to President Biden and for the support of champions like Secretary [Tom] Vilsack who have helped promote American biofuels as a solution to rising gasoline prices. We look forward to working with this administration and leaders in Congress to deliver a permanent fix to restore year-round access to E15 in the years ahead.” 

The American Coalition for Ethanol also focused on how the waiver would help consumers save money. “President Biden’s announcement is great news for the ethanol industry, farmers and, most importantly, American consumers, who are under financial stress from rising energy prices and expenses,” said Brian Jennings, CEO of ACE. “We appreciate the president making it clear the farmers and biofuel producers who produce American-made ethanol are part of the solution to address pain at the pump. Given the long-term importance to ensuring uninterrupted availability of E15 year-round in all parts of the country, we look forward to working with the administration and Congress on a permanent remedy to expand consumer access beyond the emergency measures being taken this summer.”

The Renewable Fuels Association also welcomed Biden’s announcement. “We applaud President Biden and his administration for recognizing that low-cost, low-carbon ethanol should be given a fair opportunity to strengthen our energy security and reduce record-high pump prices,” said Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the RFA. “Giving fuel retailers the freedom to offer E15 this summer will not only result in lower fuel prices for hardworking Americans, but it will also cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce tailpipe pollution linked to cancer, heart disease, respiratory illnesses and other health concerns. As our nation copes with energy price inflation and strives to enhance energy security and diversity, we salute President Biden for turning to America’s farmers and biofuel producers for ingenuity and solutions.”

Author: EPM Staff
Contact: [email protected]