The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

E15, Science and the Facts

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 27, 2014

There was an interesting article last year from Ian Boyd, a chief scientific adviser in the government of the United Kingdom.  In it Boyd looks at the role that science plays in public policy, including this clarification and warning:

Strictly speaking, the role of science should be to provide information to those having to make decisions, including the public, and to ensure that the uncertainties around that information are made clear. When scientists start to stray into providing views about whether decisions based upon the evidence are right or wrong they risk being politicised.

This comes to mind with a recent Huffington Post article lauding a proposal that would require Chicago service stations to offer E15 fuel, authored by Michael Wang and Jennifer Dunn, scientists with the Argonne National Laboratory.

Wang and Dunn write that mandating E15 – containing 50 percent more ethanol than the E10 gasoline that’s the staple of the U.S. fuel supply – is a “step in the right direction,” because of its environmental benefits. Actually, the Chicago ethanol mandate would be a giant leap backward for consumers, small business owners and, yes, the environment. Let’s go point by point.

Wang and Dunn:

A proposed City of Chicago ordinance that would require most gas stations to offer E15 fuel … is one example of a smaller step we can take now to increase our use of renewable energy sources and limit greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change. … Soon, next-generation manufacturing facilities will begin producing ethanol using agricultural waste, such as corn stalks.

Yet, others disagree. In 2011 the National Academy of Sciences – using EPA data and Argonne Lab modeling on greenhouse gases, regulated emissions and energy use in transportation – concluded that corn ethanol increases greenhouse gas emissions.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) agreed in its report, “Ethanol’s Broken Promise,” earlier this year, saying federal corn ethanol mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) have driven up food prices, strained agricultural markets, increased competition for arable land and promoted conversion of uncultivated land to grow crops. EWG said its research found that more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands were converted for corn alone and that these changes resulted in annual emissions of 85 million to 236 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. EWG:

A few recent studies still claim that corn ethanol produces fewer emissions than gasoline, but a careful look reveals that their methods don’t properly account for land use change. Studies that do factor in land use change show that using food crops to produce biofuels – once considered a promising climate change mitigation strategy – is worse for the climate than gasoline.

Here’s more, from a 2013 white paper by the Clean Air Task Force:

If EPA had analyzed corn ethanol produced during 2010-2015… the Agency would have found that corn ethanol’s net emissions over 30 years are approximately 28% higher than the emissions that would result from the use of gasoline over the same period.

And more, from 2011 congressional testimony by the University of Wyoming’s Ingrid C. Burke:

“… the pollutant amounts emitted during the fuel-production phase (including feedstock production and transportation) are typically higher for corn-grain or cellulosic ethanol than for petroleum-based fuels.”

Turning to the scientists’ assertion that production of biofuels from agricultural waste is near, we must’ve missed something. EPA certainly believes commercial production already is here, having required cellulosic ethanol use by refiners – in the millions of gallons – under the RFS since 2010.

Each year since, EPA through the RFS has mandated increasing use of cellulosic biofuels, apparently based on assurances from the cellulosic industry that it had cleared the launching pad. Yet, despite these assurances, they’re still trying to launch, producing just 600,000 gallons over the past three years, 40 percent of which wasn’t even ethanol. The situation is even worse this year. EPA proposed a 17 million-gallon cellulosic mandate for 2014, yet the cellulosic industry produced just 66,000 gallons through the first six months of the year.

That’s not an attack on cellulosic biofuels, which have a role in an all-of-the-above energy strategy. Rather, it’s a reality check for officials who continue to increase the biofuel mandate based on biofuel industry assurances instead of actual production.

Now let’s talk about choice. Wang and Dunn characterize the Chicago E15 mandate proposal as one that offers drivers a fuel choice:

… if the City of Chicago makes this higher-ethanol fuel available at gas stations, every person who opts for E15 will be making a small but real contribution toward our long-term goal of a clean energy future.

Unfortunately, they ignore the way the free-enterprise market works. “If the City of Chicago makes this higher-ethanol fuel available…”? The E15 proposal would force service station owners to make E15 available, in advance of consumer demand. Remembering that 94 percent of the country's retail gasoline stations are independently owned and operated, there would be costs, which neither the City of Chicago nor ethanol producers have volunteered to absorb.

Consider that the typical filing station has two underground tanks and would be forced to install a new tank or re-pipe their station to sell E15 – or sell only regular or premium grades of gasoline and E15. An API analysis found that more than 50 percent of the country’s retail fuel infrastructure might not be compatible with gasoline blends above 10 percent ethanol. Installation of new E15-compatible tanks, lines and dispensers could cost station owners tens of thousands of dollars to more than $100,000.

Finally, Wang and Dunn bring up the E15-and-race-cars argument, alluding to NASCAR’s use of a specialized E15 racing fuel:

We even have a Green Racing program, demonstrating advanced car technologies and alternative fuels that can be used in cars on high-speed racetracks.

It’s a red herring for a number of reasons. First, except for having four wheels and an engine, today’s NASCAR vehicles have little in common with those that Americans drive. NASCAR engines, which cost between $45,000 and $80,000 each, are designed for racing and have been modified to be compatible with the sole-sourced, Sunoco-produced competition E15 racing fuel. The fuel pumps on NASCAR vehicles are racing pumps designed to handle E15 and high-performance fuel-flow rates. NASCAR engines undergo intense maintenance, inspections and rebuilds after each race.

Few Americans get around in race cars. Research has shown the vehicles they do drive could be harmed by E15, both the engines and the fuel systems. The risk is credible enough for automakers to warn that warranties won’t cover damage from E15 use in vehicles that weren’t designed to use it.

Wang and Dunn fail to reckon significant research undercutting the claim that greater ethanol use will benefit the environment, as well as the potential economic impacts of the Chicago proposal. On the latter point, what they call “choice” would be a mandate, an example of blinkered central planning that’s untethered to market realities and potential real-world impacts on business owners and consumers.

And it would be bad public policy. Maybe the scientists should stick to science.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.