Following pressure from ethanol producers and years of testing, the EPA today has announced it will allow a 50-percent increase in the ethanol content of gasoline, but "E15" can only be used in vehicles built since 2007.
"Thorough testing has now shown that E15 does not harm emissions control equipment in newer cars and light trucks," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in a statement. "Wherever sound science and the law support steps to allow more home-grown fuels in America's vehicles, this administration takes those steps."
Under the rules announced today, the EPA will allow the use of E15 (15 percent ethanol, 85 percent gasoline) in vehicles built in 2007 or later citing testing that shows it safe for those vehicles. The rule is expected to expand to vehicles made in 2001 and later following further testing, results of which are due in November. No official testing yet exists for vehicles made in 2000 or earlier, so for now, the rule will not be extended any further.
To help minimize consumer confusion, the EPA has proposed specific E15 labels on gas pumps. Gasoline producers will also be required to specify the ethanol content of the gasoline it sells to gas stations.
Though it hasn't made many waves in the mainstream news, a war has been quietly waging between ethanol producers and an opposition that includes automakers, advocacy groups and oil companies. The ethanol producers led the push to increase the legal limit of ethanol content from 10 percent to 15 percent, a 50-percent increase. Under Federal law, the U.S. must increase the amount of renewable fuels mixed in our gasoline to 12 billion gallons next year, up from 10.5 billion gallons last year. By 2015, we must use 15 billion gallons of renewable fuels, and the ethanol producers want a big piece of that pie.
Opponents have pushed back, though, citing concerns ranging from emissions to engine damage to liability. Environmental groups argue that increasing the alcohol content of gasoline can have adverse affects on emissions systems, particularly in older vehicles. AAA, consumer advocacy groups and automakers alike have argued that older vehicles not designed for higher alcohol content in gasoline have parts that could see increased degradation from E15 fuel and oil companies are worried they'll be on the hook for any damage to customers' engines caused by E15.
Hoping to quell the debate, independent automotive engineering consulting firm Ricardo released a study last month showing that E15 posed little risk to older vehicles. Ricardo defined "older vehicles" as those built between 1994 and 2000, as their research showed that 88 percent of vehicles on the road in America today were built after 1993. While Ricardo found some damage to fuel and emissions systems, the firm concluded that it was so minimal that it shouldn't block the adoption of an E15 blend.
While ethanol producers are no doubt elated at the news, some environmentalists believe the ruling doesn't go far enough. The Renewable Fuels Association issued a press release shortly after the EPA's announcement arguing that limiting the model years of vehicles cleared to use E15 means that the ruling will have very little effect on the real-world usage of renewable fuels.
"EPA's scientifically unjustified bifurcation of the U.S. car market will do little to move the needle and expand ethanol use today," said RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen. "Limiting E15 use to 2007 and newer vehicles only creates confusion for retailers and consumers alike. America's ethanol producers are hitting an artificial blend wall today. The goals of Congress to reduce our addiction to oil captured in the Renewable Fuels Standard cannot be met with this decision."
Source: Automotive News (subscription required), EPA, Renewable Fuels Association