EPA backs broader use of ethanol

WASHINGTON — Over the objections of oil refiners and automakers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday endorsed the use of more ethanol-blended fuel in most passenger cars.

The EPA concluded it is safe to use fuels made with up to 15 percent ethanol in cars, SUVs and light-duty trucks manufactured between 2001 and 2006. That decision builds on an EPA decision last October to waive Clean Air Act restrictions on new fuels or additives and allow the ethanol-blended fuel, known as E15, for use in passenger cars built since 2007.

At the request of renewable fuels advocates, the agency had been deliberating whether the higher ethanol blend could be used in cars without damaging their emission-control systems.

The Energy Department and EPA have conducted studies of how the fuels would behave in newer cars.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said recently completed testing and data analysis showed that E15 does not harm emissions control equipment in newer cars and light trucks.

The agency is holding off on granting a similar waiver to allow the use of E15 in motorcycles and heavy-duty vehicles, as well as non-road engines, since there isn’t as much data about how the fuel would work in that equipment.

The decision is a victory for ethanol advocates, including manufacturers, corn farmers and their supporters on Capitol Hill.

Roger Johnson, the president of the National Farmers Union, said the decision would expand access for ethanol producers “and for farmers who produce clean, renewable energy solutions for our country.”

The move paves the way for E15 to be used in roughly 60 percent of the domestic automobile fleet. It also helps fulfill a congressional mandate that at least 36 billion gallons of ethanol and other biofuels be mixed into transportation fuel in 2022, up from 9 billion gallons in 2008.

‘Market barrier’

Ethanol producers have pushed for the change as a way to boost demand for their product.

Rob Skjonsberg, the senior vice president of POET, the world’s largest ethanol producer, said the EPA’s decision “opens the door to solving the market barrier on ethanol use.”

But oil refiners, which have fought the waiver in federal court, blasted the decision.

Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, said the EPA was moving ahead “without adequate scientific evidence” that the higher ethanol blend doesn’t damage equipment.

“Widespread use of 15 percent ethanol in gasoline could cause engine failures that could leave consumers stranded, injured or worse, and hit consumers with costly engine repairs,” Drevna said. “It’s the wrong decision at the wrong time, made for the wrong reasons.”

Bob Greco, the director of downstream operations for the American Petroleum Institute, called the EPA’s action “a rush to judgment” and noted a recent report by the auto and oil industries that documents possible performance problems with E15.

“EPA is choosing to ignore the potential red flags in its headlong rush to extend a premature waiver,” Greco said. “Comprehensive vehicle testing of E15 by automakers and the oil industry is not yet complete. EPA is putting more American consumers at risk by approving the use of E15 without knowing the consequences it could have.”

Labeling issue at pump

Earlier this month, the refiners association asked a federal appeals court to overturn the waiver the EPA issued in October. Auto industry trade groups also have challenged the EPA’s ruling and warn that confusing labeling at filling stations could inspire motorists to pump E15 into motorcycles and older cars by accident.

The oil industry’s fight against E15 has found an unexpected ally in environmentalists who say the production of corn for ethanol takes land away from food production, contributes to soil erosion and encourages the use of fertilizer that can contaminate water supplies.

jennifer.dlouhy@chron.com

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