Ethanol debate heats up

Anyone who thought that the EPA’s publication of its proposed Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014, 2015 and 2016 was going to settle the ethanol debate has definitely got another thing coming.

The EPA ruling has simply made the situation more contentious and complex. In fact, nobody really knows where ethanol is headed now.

Consider the following developments:

  • The industry hit an all-time high first week in June, producing 992,000 barrels per day, equal to the old record of Dec. 19, 2014, and 100,000 barrels more than the first week in May. This despite the argument from the industry that the EPA measure is crippling the industry.
  • Gasoline consumption rose 3 percent over the first quarter, the fastest increase in a decade. Gasoline costs $1 less a gallon than it did a year ago, and motorists are responding by driving more. The more gasoline consumed, the more ethanol will be consumed, since it makes up 10 percent of each gallon.
  • While the EPA may have underestimated the amount of ethanol that will be consumed in a year, the agency has definitely overestimated the amount of “advanced” ethanol the industry can produce. This is supposed to be an incentive for the development of cellulosic ethanol, but cellulosic plants are having a hard time getting off the ground. It’s not at all certain that cellulosic ethanol will ever be available in commercial quantities.
  • Through a quirk in the law, the EPA counts sugar-based ethanol as an “advanced technology” in opposition to corn-based ethanol. Therefore, refineries are allowed to count sugar-based ethanol toward their EPA “advanced” quota. The result has been a boon to Brazil, which saw its exports of sugar-based ethanol triple over the past few months. There is very little sugar-based ethanol produced in this country. The price of Renewable Identification Notices (RINs), whereby refiners show they have added “advanced” ethanol to their gasoline, rose to its highest level in two years since the EPA announcement. Meanwhile, the price of RINs for corn-based ethanol has fallen by 50 percent over the same period.

And so it goes, round and round. All this has left commentators scratching their heads as to where the industry is headed. On OilPrice.com, Colin Chilcoat wrote a column asking, “Has U.S. Ethanol Production Topped Out?” Accompanying it was a graph showing that ethanol production has leveled off at 9.8 percent of every gallon over the last three years:

ethanol graphThis puts consumption just below the 10 percent “blend wall,” at which ethanol supposedly starts to harm engines. But that’s not the whole story. As Chilcoat writes: “Buoyed by high exports – up 33 percent from 2013 – ethanol production totaled more than 14.3 billion gallons in 2014.” American ethanol is starting to find markets abroad, even as we import more from Brazil.

Then there’s the question of whether that “blend wall” really exists. There’s no question that ethanol corrodes steel. That’s the reason it can’t be shipped in pipelines – which makes it very expensive to get it from farm country to the East and West coasts. But steel has been replaced by rubber in fuel-injection systems, and the danger no longer exists for cars built after 2001. Then there are the flex-fuel vehicles, of which there are some 17 million on the road today. They can handle any liquid fuel. Finally, an older car can be modified by replacing the steel parts in the fuel system through a simple procedure that costs less than $200. E85, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, is being sold all over the Midwest, where support for ethanol is strong. And the Obama administration’s Department of Agriculture has just appropriated $100 million for gas stations that can dispense all varieties of ethanol.

“Unfortunately, the EPA continues to cling to the ‘blend wall’ methodology that falsely claims ethanol has reached its saturation point at a 10 percent ethanol blend,” Bob Dinneen, president the Renewable Fuels Association, complained. “The Agency has eviscerated the program’s ability to incentivize investments in infrastructure that would break through the blend wall and encourage the commercialization of new technologies.”

Perhaps the biggest shift has come from environmental groups, who were once ethanol’s biggest supporters but who have done a 180-degree turn and are now among its biggest opponents. The Environmental Working Group recently published a paper claiming that corn ethanol actually produces a 20 percent increase in carbon emissions and is a contributor to global warming. EWG estimates that the production of E10 in 2014 resulted in 27 million tons more carbon emissions than if American drivers had been burning ethanol-free gasoline (E0). A study by the World Resources Institute purports to show that where carbon emissions are concerned, ethanol does more harm than good. Friends of the Earth, once a supporter, is now one of ethanol’s most vocal detractors.

Yet the public seems to be still behind the ethanol effort. A poll conducted by RFA found that 62 percent of the public favors corn-based ethanol, while only 18 percent were opposed. The number rose to 69 percent when people were asked if manufacturers should be required to offer flex-fuel vehicles.

So the EPA is limiting the production of corn ethanol, which is plentiful, while providing broad leeway to cellulosic ethanol, which doesn’t yet exist at scale. To top things off, Sen. John Cassidy of Louisiana introduced a bill to do away with the Renewable Fuel Standard altogether, making all gas E0 again. Senators Diane Feinstein of California and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania already have a similar bill in the hopper.

The last act of the ethanol story has definitely not been written yet.

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