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EPA appears to open the door to cutting the amount of ethanol in gasoline

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Photo by Becky Lai.

While the Environmental Protection Agency has done so slower than anticipated, it has followed the Renewable Fuel Standard, which calls for steadily increasing amounts of ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply, since it passed Congress more than a decade ago. That may change, however, as the EPA signaled this week it could consider using new tools that would allow the agency to reduce ethanol levels.

Nothing in the EPA’s Notice of Data Ability, issued (__September 26__), indicates that the agency will call for cuts beyond what it already outlined in July for 2018 and 2019. Instead, the notice outlines a number of issues that agency officials believe would give them the authority to bypass the RFS, including cheap imports of renewable fuel, inadequate domestic supply, and increasing costs for biodiesel and advanced (non-corn) cellulosic ethanol.

In addition, the notice points out that the agency can make adjustments under the guise of preventing “severe economic harm,” a provision already in the Renewable Fuel Standard. “In particular, we seek input on whether there is information indicating that severe economic harm is occurring under current standards or would occur for any volume requirement that could be established in the current rulemaking and, if so, whether and how volumes should be adjusted to address such harm.”

While the EPA — as well as the pro-ethanol Renewable Fuels Association — routinely dismisses the concerns of collector car enthusiasts, many in the hobby have blamed ethanol-blended fuels for degrading fuel-system components in older cars and in turn requiring extensive and costly repairs. Indeed, the EPA has conceded that “there is some potential for E15 to damage older vehicles and gasoline-powered equipment” in determining that the fuel is not appropriate for 2000 and older vehicles.

For the first time earlier this year, the EPA proposed reducing the total amount of ethanol-blended fuels, from 19.28-billion gallons in 2017 to 19.24-billion gallons in 2018. The total amount of corn-based ethanol-blended fuels is projected to remain the same, at 15-billion gallons, as is the total amount of non-ethanol fuel, at 200-million gallons.

The EPA has, in the past, used waivers to stall implementation of the RFS — most notably when demand for fuels dropped, contrary to the RFS framers’ anticipations — but not to reverse it. The recent notice from the agency implies that all forms of renewable fuel, not just advanced ethanol or biodiesel, may be subject to such waivers.

A public commenting period on the notice and on the EPA’s waiver authority will open shortly at The EPA is expected to finalize its 2018 numbers by November 30.