Expectations from farmers and the renewable fuels industry were pumped up last month when the Trump administration announced that it would allow year-round sales gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol.
Under the new ruling, gas stations across the country can sell E15 all year long. The most common gasoline now sold at gas stations contains about 10 percent ethanol.
Following the announcement, Bill Wehrum, EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, said the move will boost the renewable fuel market, which is now saturated with E10.
The biofuels industry first got its hopes up last fall when President Donald Trump announced plans to address the fight over E15 availability. But months of inaction followed and concerns arose as a June 1 deadline neared.
But proponents know the years-long battle over E15 is far from over, though, as the oil industry has already said it will challenge the legality of any new E15 ruling.
“The oil industry has been fighting ethanol for years because they don’t want to lose any more market share,” said Randy Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel in Claremont.
It’s been a little over a year since Al-Corn’s $146 million expansion and modernization project wrapped up. Since then, it’s numbers have increased: 50 employees compared to 32 before the expansion project; 120 million gallons of ethanol produced compared to 50 million gallons; 47 million bushels of corn used compared to 17.5 million bushels.
Doyal said it’s now cheaper for refiners to buy ethanol than it is to make octane.
But, “it took too damn long,” said Doyal for the EPA to allow year-round E15. “It’s a good first step, but it’s taken forever to happen.”
He said the conversation around E15 availability started in 2008, and the EPA has spent an inordinate amount of time since then to evaluate the fuel blend.
“The EPA spent more time testing on E15 than it did for any other gas component,” said Doyal.
Despite that, the EPA first approved E15 for 2001 and newer light-duty vehicles and all flex fuel vehicles, more than 90 percent of all vehicles on the road, according to Ethanol Producer Magazine. E15 was not approved for older cars, off-road engines or motorcycles or boats.
But Doyal said the 2001 cutoff is somewhat arbitrary, as it represents only the window the EPA tested on.
“Instead of the years spent studying this, why not just look at Brazil, where they’re running 27 percent (ethanol blend) on the same cars we have running here,” he said.
He thinks that long-term E15 availability will lead to more demand, but it will take a few years to get there.
“In Minnesota, we’ve got probably more E15 than anybody,” he said. “And we’ve got more and more stations out there offering it for sale.”
A lot of those stations aren’t calling it E15, though, said Doyal. At Kwik Trip, it’s sold under the label U-88. That can bring confusion to consumers at the pump.
Now E15 can be sold year-round under the E15 label, and not have to be marketed as only for flex-fuel or vehicles made before 2001.
“Ethanol is the cleanest burning stuff out there, and better for the environment than anything else we use in liquid fuel,” said Doyal.
He said perhaps the most critical aspect is that ethanol displaces the more toxic parts used to make gasoline. And it’s renewable.
On top of that, ethanol promotes the local farm economy. Doyal said Al-Corn already increases the price paid for grain marketed around Claremont.
Made from soybean oil, corn oil or waste oil, approximately 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol are produced each year in Minnesota, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The state ranks fourth in ethanol production in the country, with 19 different ethanol plants.
While waiting out the long process of getting E15 approved for year-round sales, the ethanol industry was hit by an increasing use of economic hardship waivers. The waivers reduce the amount of ethanol that small oil refineries are required to blend.
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar was asked last week about the waivers, and if she thought congress would be able to force the EPA to do anything about them.
She said that if democrats had the majority, they’d be looking into passing a law to change how the waivers are used. But they don’t have the majority.
“Right now, people seem to be continuing to let companies like Chevron and Exxon get waivers, and it makes no sense,” said Klobuchar. “This was an emergency measure put in place for small refineries.”
Klobuchar said that around six refineries used to get waivers in a given year. Last year, 37 refineries requested waivers from the EPA.
The reasoning for an increase in waivers has yet to come to light and decisions regarding waivers are being made behind closed doors, said Klobuchar. Democrats are now pushing the issue more and asking questions during hearings.
“They just have to stop,” Klobuchar said of the waivers. “We have enough problems for rural America right now with commodity prices, weather and the trade war. And you don’t have to add things that are self-inflicted wounds.”