You would think 270 days would be enough time to make a decision. It wasn't for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), though, when deciding whether to allow E15 (15% ethanol, 85% gasoline) in the nation's fuel supply.
Since the March 2009 request by Growth Energy to allow gasoline to contain up to 15% ethanol, EPA has considered several options, while signaling it intended to meet the 270-day deadline that is imposed by law. Talk in Washington was that EPA could announce an E15 blend; a lesser percentage, such as E12; limit any higher blend to cars newer than a certain year; or reject the request.
In recent weeks, EPA signaled it wanted to see tests on E15's impact on engines. Since the Department of Energy (DOE) studies won't be done until mid-2010, the situation raised the prospect of EPA delaying its decision.
And delay it did. "The agency will decide whether to raise the blending limit when more testing data is available,” EPA said in a Dec. 1 statement. The agency told Growth Energy it wanted to be sure it had "all necessary science to make the right decision.”
DOE is conducting studies on the long-term impact of E15 on 19 different vehicles. "Presently, data are available on only two vehicles,” EPA said, adding that the results were promising. "It is expected that testing will be completed on an additional 12 vehicles by the end of May. Should test results remain supportive, we would be in a position to approve E15 for 2001 and newer vehicles in midyear. If the data highlight potential problems, our decision may need to be delayed until all testing is received and reviewed.”
Multiple pumps? Any decision on higher-ethanol-blend fuel would mean that fuel handlers might have to have multiple pumps and numerous warnings to prevent consumers from misfueling their vehicles. That means a major consumer education effort would have to take place before any higher blend is offered.
EPA said it will "address fuel pump labeling issues to ensure consumers utilize proper gasoline for their vehicles and equipment (such as lawn mowers, boats, etc.) should the use of ethanol blends greater than 10% be approved.” It also said it will "assess how pump labeling requirements might be extended to fuel distributors” and that final labeling requirements will be "put in place soon after a waiver decision is made.”
Industry reactions. EPA's decision did not sit well with ethanol supporters. "This delay threatens to paralyze the continued evolution of America's ethanol industry,” says Renewable Fuels Association CEO Bob Dinneen. "As EPA indicated, scientific data to date demonstrates no ill effects of increased ethanol use in any vehicle currently on the road. This delay will chill investment in advanced biofuel technologies at a critical time.
"EPA should immediately approve intermediate ethanol blends, such as E12,” he adds. "Allowing for a 20% increase in ethanol's potential share of the market would provide some breathing room for the industry while EPA finishes its testing on E15. Additionally, it would represent a good faith gesture that underscores the commitment President Obama has pledged to biofuels.”
While EPA's delay is frustrating for backers of a higher ethanol blend, it does clear up a few things. Now, most expect the final outcome will be an E15 fuel limited to 2001 and newer vehicles. But another clock is ticking: Many in the ethanol industry say the blend wall is fast approaching.
You can e-mail Roger Bernard at firstname.lastname@example.org.