Ag Policy Blog

Championing Higher Blends of Ethanol for Cleaner Air

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A proposed EPA rule would restrict the ability to sell 20% and 30% ethanol blends for vehicles that are not designed for flex fuel.

As the ethanol industry gathers in San Diego and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt starts his first day on the job in Washington, a group of ethanol supporters is pushing the EPA reevaluate how it treats mid-level blends of ethanol.

The Urban Air Initiative and several other groups filed comments with EPA last week to convince the agency to reconsider a plan that would limit ethanol blend above 15% strictly for use in vehicles considered flex-fuel.

EPA has a proposed rule called the Renewables Enhancement Growth Support Rule that ethanol supporters say would create more obstacles for the industry. The proposal would essentially classify any ethanol blend from 16% to 83% as "ethanol flex fuel" that could only be used for flex-fuel vehicles. That would prohibit the sale of higher blends to vehicles that are not classified specifically as a flex-fuel vehicle.

EPA officials have argued the proposal would lead to the expansion of ethanol blends, but several groups backing ethanol disagree with EPA's take.

The issue around mid-level ethanol fuels is complicated and revolves around the roles of octane and aromatics in gasoline and ethanol blends. Octane is a measurement of any chemical that will keep gasoline from igniting early in a combustion engine. Gasoline ignites at around 550 F while ethanol ignites at around 700 F. It's the exhaust from those combustions that come out of the tailpipe.

Rather than use ethanol for higher octane, such as 91 octane, refiners normally instead use aromatics.

Jeff Scharping, director of government affairs for ICM Inc. in Wichita, Kan, and a board member for the Urban Air Initiative, spoke about mid-level ethanol blends, octane and aromatics earlier this month at a board meeting for an ethanol plant in Southwest Iowa.

"I want you to leave here loud and proud about ethanol, about what it is doing in our nation and around the world to help the environment and help our engines perform," Scharping said.

Scharping talks about a simple concept that also seems to be revolutionary to many who have heard him speak. He argues that when it comes to auto emissions, it is more important to look at what is going on with the engine than what is happening with the tailpipe.

"When everybody looks at pollution, they look at the tail pipe. EPA and other regulators look at tailpipe emissions. What I'm trying to introduce to them is a step backwards. Look at the engine and the fire and explosions in the engine. If you want to control your ozone and your tailpipe, control your engines. If you want to control the explosions in your engine, you control the fuel. If you have a cleaner fuel, you will have cleaner explosions and a cleaner tailpipe."

Scharping said he often has debates on the value of ethanol. He notes signs at fuel stations, particularly in the South, listing "no ethanol, 100% gasoline." That effectively means those stations and refiners use more aromatic chemicals to raise the octane levels. A gallon of gasoline will be up to 25% of aromatic chemicals and are done mainly to raise the octane levels in the gasoline. 91- octane gasoline with no ethanol will contain aromatic compounds such as benzene, toluene and xylene. Aromatic levels in areas with heavy concentrations of smog, such as Mexico City or Beijing, can have significantly higher percentages of aromatics in their gasoline.

"Aromatics are the nasty, cancer-causing component of gasoline," Scharping said. "But if aromatics are so bad, why don't we take them out? Because aromatics are a great octane."

As Scharping stresses, ethanol's economic value is octane. Ethanol's health value is elimination of aromatics. This is the Urban Air Initiative is championing by trying to convince EPA not to restrict higher blends of ethanol, such as E-20 or E-30. Scharping and others argue where "ethanol is going to win" going forward is that EPA and the Obama administration have already set higher mileage requirements for the nation's auto fleet in the future.

To meet the mileage, they are going to need smaller engines and lighter vehicles. But Americans are not going to give up higher power or performance. That means they need higher compression and turbos on them. They need higher octane to make that happen. They want that octane, Scharping explained.

The auto manufacturers may not care if the higher octane comes from ethanol or aromatics. That's where the clean-air focus of ethanol comes in. "We have the economic value of higher octane and we have the clean-air aspect, which is why they are going to come to us in the future," Scharping told the ethanol-plant shareholders.

Yet carmakers also do not care for the higher fuel-economy and emission standards adopted under the Obama administration. Bloomberg reported late last week that executives from Ford, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors wrote a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to reopen an EPA review of the fuel standards. The Obama administration cut a deal with companies back in 2011 to set average fuel-economy standards at 50 miles a gallon by 2025 as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Bloomberg wrote, "Automakers say falling gasoline prices have squelched demand for the most fuel-efficient vehicles, making achieving the standards more difficult."

The auto manufacturers claim EPA quickly concluded a mid-term review of the fuel-economy guidelines just before Trump took office, Bloomberg reported. The automakers claim they did not have a chance to properly respond and seek changes to the higher mileage standards.…

Getting back to mid-level blends, EPA granted a waiver in 2011 to allow using 15% ethanol in gasoline for cars that are model year 2001 and newer.

Yet, according to the new proposed EPA rule, ethanol blends of E-16 to E-83 would not be allowed without a waiver and prevent the sale of those blends to non-flex fuel vehicles. The Urban Air Initiative and the other groups argue this is an irrational prohibition. Instead, the initiative and other groups argue that EPA should instead expand the use of midlevel ethanol blends as a way to reduce air pollution and increase vehicle efficiency because of that higher octane in ethanol.

The pro-ethanol groups noted in their argument that "as automotive engineers have conclusively demonstrated, 'higher octane fuel improves the efficiency of today's engines through reduced spark retard ... at high loads," citing a 2015 study. Thus, increasing the use of midlevel blends of ethanol would further drive the auto industry to the next generation of more efficient vehicles.

"An overwhelming body of evidence demonstrates that a high-octane, midlevel ethanol blend would enable significant increases in vehicle efficiency," citing yet another study looking at increased efficiency and lower carbon emissions of ethanol.

The push for mid-level blends is supported by other groups as well, including the National Farmers Union -- and state affiliates in Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin -- the Nebraska Ethanol Board, Energy Future Coalition, the Clean Fuels Development Coalition, ICM, Inc., a builder of ethanol plants.

Ethanol producers signing on included Glacial Lakes Energy in South Dakota and Siouxland Ethanol.

"Ethanol has proven over and over we're a sustainable source of clean energy," Scharping said when we met earlier this month.

A full copy of the Urban Air Initiative's comments can be found at…

Chris Clayton can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN


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