EPA Approves E15 Ethanol-Gasoline Blend
By Chris Haak
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday announced that it has approved the use of E15 (a blend of 85 percent gasoline and 15 percent ethanol) for 2007 and later model-year vehicles. Much to the chagrin of the farm lobby and to the ethanol lobby (represented by the Renewable Fuels Association, or RFA), the EPA is continuing to study the effects of ethanol on pre-2007 vehicles.
The RFA, of course, is interested in selling more ethanol. According to the group, raising the previous 10 percent ethanol cap in regular gasoline could increase ethanol demand by a substantial 6.5 billion gallons, which the group says would also reduce oil imports by 200 million gallons, presumably annually.
There is a considerable amount of concern among automakers and consumers, however, about the additional ethanol content in gasoline. Some gasoline stations have taken to advertising “pure gas – no ethanol” underneath their posted prices, and some consumers are drawn to that. After all, E10 does reduce fuel economy by a bit thanks to its slightly-lower energy density. Also, higher concentrations of ethanol can wreak havoc on a vehicle’s fuel system if it’s not designed as flex fuel-capable. What the EPA is apparently studying is at what ratio – E15, E20, E25 – ethanol concentrations become too high for conventional fuel systems to handle.
Then there’s the issue of consumer confusion at the gas pump. Most gas stations offer a few grades of gasoline, and perhaps diesel fuel, and – once in a blue moon – E85. It’s unlikely that many stations would have interest in offering E15 gasoline separately from E10 gasoline, but older cars shouldn’t use E15. This means that, unless E15 is approved to completely replace E10, E15 adoption is unlikely at most gas stations.
Opponents of ethanol point out that in its current corn-derived form, farmland that could be used for growing food is being diverted to vehicle fuel production, which in turn makes farmland and indeed food more scarce than it otherwise would be. The silver bullet, perhaps, is cellulosic ethanol, which basically works the same in vehicles as the corn-based variety, but is derived from fast-growing switchgrass and even waste plant-based material.
In all likelihood, we’re going to see a continued expansion of alternative propulsion methods. Some will run on batteries (Volt, Leaf, others); some will convert hydrogen to electricity; others will continue to burn fuel (whether that fuel be gasoline, E85, E10, E15, diesel fuel, or bottled cow farts). We’re likely within a decade or two of when hydrocarbon-based fuels become too expensive (whether by market forces or market force-altering tax incentives), which will mark the end of nearly all private transportation being powered by basically the same thing. I’m no futurist, but I see the pie graph of private-mobility power sources adding a lot more color by the time my children are my age.
It should be interesting to see how this all plays out, but the E15 approval is at this point barely even large enough of a victory to make the ethanol lobby crack a smile. That is, unless the E15 approval gives them hope for widespread E20 adoption down the road.