Study on Impact of Higher Ethanol Blend Percentage Could Take a Year

April 1, 2009 07:00 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Proponents and opponents of boost in blend percentage make views known at hearing

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

An EPA official told a congressional hearing on Wednesday that testing being conducted in coordination with the Department of Energy to evaluate the impacts of higher ethanol blends on non-flex fuel vehicles and non-road equipment could take as long as a year to complete.

Margo Oge, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Transportation and Air Quality made the timeline statement in a written statement as she appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. Oge said the tests should provide "emissions and durability data to support a decision on the appropriate use, if any, of higher blends of ethanol in gasoline vehicles and engines."

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado has measured only the short-term effects of multiple ethanol blends in the engines of cars and leaf blowers, among other power equipment. "Both sides are a bit premature," said Keith Knoll, the study's senior project leader at the National Renewable Energy Lab. "This is part of a much larger study that needs to be finished before any broad sweeping conclusions are drawn." The study is to be completed in 2010.

Under current rules, conventional cars cannot use gasoline that contains more than 10 percent ethanol. Growth Energy, an ethanol-backed interest group, asked the EPA in March to increase the ethanol blend up to 15 percent. Because the agency has until December to examine the issue, Growth Energy has asked that the blend temporarily be raised to 12 or 13 percent.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del) said a proposed rule on renewable fuel standards is needed to “provide certainty” to the industry and that he and other colleagues would write a letter to the Obama administration “to see if we can't get those regulations moving.”

Meanwhile, the Renewable Fuels Association on Wednesday requested in a letter that the Obama administration act with “due haste” in releasing the proposed renewable fuel standard rules. Ethanol supporters warn that the US biofuels industry could be at risk without a mandated higher blend.

The Obama administration sent a proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget for interagency review Feb. 6.

Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, said "We're using as much corn as this country can for fuel. “ Drevna said he was concerned that vehicle engines and other technology would not be compatible for use with “mid-level blends” of more than 10 percent ethanol. “Our suggestion would be: Let's suspend the RFS2 corn ethanol where it is right now,” said Drevna, who was also testifying on behalf of the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute. “I think the worst thing we can do is to roll the dice and subject the consumer to potential equipment failures and hazards that right now would be counterproductive,” he said. “Let's look before we leap and make sure that we know exactly what the consequences — intended or not — are of injecting more ethanol into the current gasoline supply.”

Another witness also urged caution. Blake Early, who follows fuel issues for the American Lung Association, said it was too soon for the EPA to allow higher levels of ethanol in gasoline. "We need to make decisions about additional ethanol use with full understanding of the impacts on our health, and our vehicles and engines," he said, adding that he had concerns about the “premature approval” of mid-level ethanol standards in the nation's gasoline supply, because the impact of such fuels on ozone had not been properly studied. “I think this Congress needs to start taking some sort of time out that would put the renewable fuels standard on hold,” he said.

Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that “the amount of ethanol we allow to be blended into a gallon of gasoline must be based on compete testing to ensure the public’s health is protected.” Greene said further research is needed to ensure that ethanol fuel blends above 10 percent do not cause more environmental harm than good, especially in terms of land used to grow biofuels feedstock.

“There is no doubt that using some sources of biomass to make fuels leads to substantial GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions as a result of changing our uses of land around the world,” Greene said. He said that for Congress or the EPA to simply authorize higher ethanol blends while overlooking the potential land use impact “is clearly not supported by the science."

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) recently sent a letter to members of President Obama’s Cabinet opposing an increase in the ethanol blend percentage for gasoline. The letter was sent to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner.

Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, said the EPA should proceed with the rule, and the accompanying public comment period, promptly. “The disagreements,” he said, “should be aired in a public process where science, not politics, drives the process.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the full committee, said she had no plans to revise biofuel mandates.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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