USDA and Energy Department Leaders Asked About Ethanol Blend Above 10%

January 21, 2009 06:00 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Bush administration failed to act on effort to boost blend max above 10%

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

Recent confirmation hearings for USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Energy Secretary Steven Chu saw some farm-state lawmakers questioning them relative to renewable fuels and ethanol in particular, including increasing the ethanol blend beyond 10 percent for most vehicles.

Vilsack said that ethanol must move beyond its use of corn and into the area of cellulosic feedstocks, such as wood waste and the non-edible parts of crop plants, if the industry hopes to mature and meet the requirement of 36 billion gallons used each year by 2022. “To meet that law will be a challenge unless we do a better job of accelerating research and development on a variety of second- and third-generation feed stocks for biofuels,” Vilsack said. “There are issues involving the nature of those feed stocks, the processing opportunities they present, and challenges, the transportation issues that are involved, the capacity to store. All of those have to be looked at, and in a very accelerated way.”

Vilsack said going beyond what’s required in energy bill passed in December 2007 to blending 15 or 20 percent ethanol into each gallon of gasoline might be out of reach. He said it was up to the federal government to lead the charge so that renewable, American-grown biofuels can be a bigger part of the energy equation. “USDA has a very, very important role to play to make sure we indeed provide the research, the focus and the direction to meet whatever the requirements are,” Vilsack said.

When Chu was asked whether a higher ethanol blend might be needed to meet the energy bill’s requirement for use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels each year, he did not specifically address the question and started talking about cars. “This is partly a technical question as to whether the automobile manufacturers’ engines, without major redesign -- my understanding is when you go up to E10 this is all right. You can replace the fuel lines to make them resistant to this ethanol blend,” Chu said. “You can go to E85 and that works. I frankly don’t know -- this is one of the things we have to look at regarding the automobile industry as to whether they can safely go to E15 or E20 or higher. This is something that’s on the table.”

Monte Shaw of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association said that a change at the pump could dramatically increase ethanol production. The group would like to see current blends of gasoline with 10 percent ethanol become an E-20 blend. He said even an E-13 could make a big difference. "That would immediately create a demand or at least the potential for the demand of another four billion gallons of ethanol," he said. He said he is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to change those standards for cars. He said he is hopeful that the Obama administration and Vilsack will help with those efforts.

Comments: The ethanol blend topic was punted on by the Bush administration in its closing weeks and months. After repeated messages from EPA spokesmen that the Bush team wanted to announce something on this topic before they departed, the only announcement was no decision was made. Now it is up to the Obama team to determine the blend percentage issue. Based on the comments from Vilsack and Chu detailed previously, a final decision on this topic certainly is not on the front burner at this time. And with new and likely more players via the Obama administration, proponents of a higher ethanol blend, who were wrong in predicting the Bush team would announce a boost from the 10 percent maximum percentage, have their work cut out for them.

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


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