INSIGHT: US rushes to boost ethanol without science

12 March 2009 16:03  [Source: ICIS news]

US to mandate more ethanol in gasolinesBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The Obama administration and Capitol Hill appear determined to mandate higher bio-ethanol content in US gasolines despite objections from refiners, petrochemical firms and a broad array of other manufacturers and environmentalists.

The administration and congressional backers seem bent on rushing approval of the higher ethanol blend requirement even without a thorough scientific review of consequences for transportation fuel infrastructure, automakers and consumers.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said earlier this week that he has urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to quickly raise the current 10% limit on ethanol content in gasolines, known as E-10, to 12% or 13% even before the agency conducts a scientific review of a biofuels industry request for a 15% blend authorisation.

The US biobased ethanol industry filed a formal request with EPA on 6 March, seeking an increase in the 10% blend cap to 15%, saying that the ethanol industry - hard pressed by lower margins and facing further bankruptcies - might not survive without the higher mandate.

Growth Energy, representing US bio-ethanol producers, said in its formal EPA filing that “for all practical purposes, E-10 saturation has already occurred”, meaning there is more ethanol productive capacity than mandated demand.

“This is a primary reason for the US ethanol industry’s current financial condition,” Growth Energy said.

Bob Dinneen, president of the biofuels trade group Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), said that “an immediate move to E-12 is both prudent and scientifically supportable and will give the American ethanol industry breathing room to ensure that [its] economic viability is preserved”.

A coalition of refiners, petrochemical firms, other manufacturers and environmentalists quickly voiced opposition to the ethanol blend expansion, arguing that there is no justification for brushing aside scientific analysis in order to boost the blend mandate past 10%.

“There has not been sufficient testing of motor vehicle and non-road equipment engines, such as outdoor power equipment and marine engines, to determine whether any mid-level ethanol blend would meet current federal air quality protection requirements or be safe fro consumers to use,” the coalition said.

The coalition, which includes the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the Engine Manufacturers Association and a variety of auto and power equipment makers, contends that trampling due diligence and scientific testing in the rush to rescue the government-supported but floundering ethanol sector could prove disastrous.

They warn that putting higher levels of ethanol into the US gasoline distribution system and the country’s existing auto fleet could damage distribution infrastructure, fuel pumps and car engines, put consumers’ safety at risk and aggravate rather than reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

“In fact, existing test results suggest that mid-level ethanol blends may not only be incompatible with most of today’s motor vehicle and non-road equipment engines, but may actually lead to increases in emissions from those engines over their lifetimes,” the coalition argued.

“These test results also raise significant consumer safety concerns, as mid-level ethanol blends may defeat engine safety features and may contribute to engine unreliability and malfunction.”

“American motorists and consumers cannot afford to have EPA’s decision on whether to permit the use of ethanol blends higher than 10% ... be guided by any factor other than sound and unbiased science,” said NPRA in speaking for the coalition.

But those opposed to the higher ethanol blend mandate might not get the science-based decision they seek.

Saying the US biofuels industry is under severe stress, Secretary Vilsack said: “I’ve had a number of personal conversations with [EPA] Administrator [Lisa] Jackson, encouraging her and her team to take aggressive action on the blend rate.”

He said he is pressing EPA to immediately authorise a blend increase to 12% or 13% while the agency goes through the regulatory review process required by law to boost the mandate to 15% or even 20%.

“Our hope is that the EPA can come to the same conclusion we have, which is that that’s something that can be done within existing regulations without a great deal of time being spent reviewing the science,” said Vilsack, the former governor of corn state Iowa.

Vilsack was speaking at the National Farmers Union convention in Washington this week, and he was joined in supporting urgent action by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California).

Addressing the farmers’ convention, Pelosi said she supports boosting the ethanol blend to 15%. “It seems to me we should be able to do that,” she said.

Members of Congress from major corn-producing states also urged quick action by EPA, with Democrat Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota calling for a prompt boost in the ethanol blend, joined by Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota.

Klobuchar said the EPA “quickly needs to raise the amount of ethanol required in regular gasoline to 12% or 13% with an eventual boost to 15 to 20%”.

Ironically, the calls by Vilsack and others for EPA to sweep aside scientific review and immediately boost the ethanol blend to 13% came on the same day that President Barack Obama issued a memo to “restore scientific integrity to government decision making”.

Obama’s memo said that the goal of developing clean sources of energy “requires that the administration’s decisions about public policy be guided by the most accurate and objective scientific advice available”.

The president’s directive to the EPA and all other administration agencies specified that in decision making they “use scientific and technological information that has been subject to well-established scientific processes such as peer review”.

Apparently Vilsack and others missed that memo.

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By: Joe Kamalick
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