Ag Policy Blog

Pruitt Raises Idea of Higher Levels of Ethanol-Free Gasoline

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A blender pump in Iowa

Reaction to the Renewable Fuels Standard numbers on Wednesday largely were pleased EPA had given conventional biofuels the 15-billion-gallon mark the industry coveted for so long.

Far fewer comments were directed at EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's calls for resetting the future biofuel targets. Pruitt stated that the proposal is "consistent with market realities focused on actual production and consumer demand while being cognizant of the challenges that exist in bringing advanced biofuels to the marketplace.

EPA will conduct a technical analysis to establish the information base for a future rule to reset the RFS. EPA is allowed to reset the RFS when production targets are missed by 20% or more for two years in a row, or by 50% in one year, Informa Economics noted. Cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuels have not been able to keep pace with the statute.

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Pruitt also noted that EPA will be "assessing higher levels of ethanol-free gasoline."

Ethanol-free gasoline translates into higher volumes of aromatic chemicals to raise the octane levels of gasoline. The focus on higher levels of ethanol-free gasoline also runs completely counter to the push by the biofuels industry to increase blend levels to E15 or even E30.

Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, touched on that octane connection in a column Thursday, citing that "RFA continues to believe biofuel and petroleum fuel producers should be working together to introduce liquid fuel formulations that offer optimal engine performance, superior fuel economy, reduced GHG and criteria emissions, and lower prices for consumers. That means transitioning to an ethanol-based high octane, low carbon fuel blend like E25 or E30 in the long term."

Dinneen also pointed to a quote from Tom Kloza, founder of the Oil Price Information Service, at a recent energy conference, citing that "we'll need more octane for the US gasoline pool if (liquid) fossil fuel is to remain dominant."

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. A gallon of gasoline will be up to 25% of aromatic chemicals that are there mainly to raise the octane levels. A gallon of 91-octane gasoline with no ethanol will contain aromatic compounds such as benzene, toluene and xylene. These are toxic chemicals coming out of the tailpipe just so the petroleum refiners can boost octane levels without having to use higher ethanol blends.

So why would EPA be looking at "higher levels of ethanol-free gasoline" when the petroleum industry is acknowledging the need to move to higher octane levels? That seems to go against the mission of EPA, which is cleaner air. Higher blends of ethanol can help reduce aromatics, which is a focus of groups such as the Urban Air Initiative, and the push from other groups to increase ethanol blend levels at the pump.

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