The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

E15: Politics or Science?

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted September 23, 2010

Here's a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, or in this case approving a new fuel before it's adequately tested.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is reviewing a proposal to affix new E15 labels on gasoline pumps. The problem is that until scientific studies on E15 are completed, no one knows what the labels should say. The labels are part of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plan that could increase the amount of ethanol sold in gasoline.

As we've explained previously, at present gasoline may contain up to 10 percent ethanol (E10). But Growth Energy, which represents ethanol producers, has filed a petition asking EPA to approve fuel containing up to 15 percent ethanol (E15).

A Growth Energy spokesperson calls OMB's review of the labeling proposal "definitely promising." (Reuters)

Questions remain on whether raising ethanol levels can harm cars, storage tanks, and gasoline pumps. A major multi-year scientific study, funded by both industry and the government, is underway but it won't be completed until 2011. Despite that, EPA has indicated it might decide in October to allow E15 to be sold to 2007 model year and newer vehicles. To further confuse the consumer, EPA is likely to allow E15 to be used in 2001 and newer vehicles by December. And everyone agrees that E15 could cause serious problems if used in lawn mowers, chain saws, motorcycles, motor boats, and other small engines.

Why would EPA approve sales of a questionable fuel before the research is finished? Let's see...E15 is supported by Midwest ethanol producers. Ethanol producers are struggling with too much capacity and need to sell a lot more ethanol. The election is scheduled for November 2. Need I say more?

Plus, there's little harm in approving the E15 proposal because there are roadblocks to the fuel's immediate introduction, according to a Sierra Research study commissioned by API. EPA knows there are no statutes on the books that could force states or retail service stations to offer E15 for sale. And it would be prohibitively expensive for most service stations to add another storage tank and pump to dispense a fuel that is approved for use in newer vehicles only.

The real danger is in the precedent that EPA could establish by approving E15. If the agency greases every squeaky wheel that files a petition, what could be the long-term impact on EPA's mission and ultimately on the environment?

Science should rule EPA's decision-making, not politics.

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Update on September 24, 2010: In a Hill op-ed, the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) warns that E15 "could be seriously detrimental" to the nation's power boats. Read the full op-ed authored by Thom Dammrich, president of NMMA.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jane Van Ryan was formerly senior communications manager and new media advisor at the American Petroleum Institute (API), where she wrote blog posts and produced podcasts and videos. Before coming to API, Jane managed communications for a large science and engineering corporation, and for a top-tier research and engineering university. A few years ago, you might have seen her in your living room when she delivered the news on television. Jane officially retired from API in 2011 and now freelances as an independent communications consultant when not gardening at her farm in Virginia.