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EPA proposal would open the floodgates to ethanol-blended fuels above E15

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Photo by Snapshot_Factory.

In a stark contrast to its slow-growth approach to ethanol-blended fuels over the last several years, the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday proposed to reclassify ethanol blends above E15, effectively wiping out existing regulations that have kept the fuels from widespread use.

“In order to continue the progress made in promoting the use of renewable fuels in the transportation sector, we believe it is important to take steps to remove potential barriers to their production, distribution, and consumption,” the EPA wrote in the proposal.

Spurred in part by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the Agency’s proposal aims to add more renewable fuels to the transportation fuel supply not by increasing volumes of ethanol blends up to E15 – a slow process that has to date only earned the EPA enmity from renewable fuel supporters and opponents – but by redefining fuels with 16 to 50 percent ethanol from gasoline to “ethanol flex fuels,” the same category applied to E85 fuel blends (that is, blends containing 50 to 83 percent ethanol).

As outlined in the proposal, the EPA hopes the reclassification will not only pave the way for the proliferation of blender pumps – through which the consumer can select the amount of ethanol to pump into their vehicle – but also encourage more car buyers to opt for flex-fuel vehicles, which currently account for six percent of the nation’s vehicle fleet.

The proposal does not approve E16 and higher blends for gasoline-only (non-flex fuel) vehicles, nor does it reverse the EPA’s finding that blends higher than 10 percent are not safe for vehicles produced before 2001.

Concern over the so-called “blend wall,” along with several other factors, has prevented the EPA from meeting the guidelines for ethanol use as laid out by Congress in the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard. Still, the EPA has projected blending a total of 18.8 billion gallons of ethanol into the nation’s fuel supply in 2017 and earlier this year noted that it can only meet the RFS numbers through wider distribution of E15 and higher blended fuels.

Legislation designed to curb the blending of ethanol into fuel, including the Food and Fuel Consumer Protection Act of 2016, which would cap annual blending requirements at no more than 9.7 percent of the nation’s fuel supply rather than the static figures legislated by Congress, and the RFS Reform Act of 2015, which would prevent the sale of any fuel with a higher ethanol content than E10, remains in Congressional committee.

The EPA is expected to put its most recent proposal up for public comment shortly. It is also expected to deliver a final ruling on ethanol blending requirements for 2017 by November 30.