Natural Gas, Corn Stover And The Restricted Ethanol Market

The nation is lucky to have Gina McCarthy as the head of the EPA. Her background is exquisite, her intellect is superior and her sensitivity to and understanding of the environmental issues facing America is second to none. She has been a fine EPA Administrator.

Then why am I worried when we have such a surfeit of riches in one individual leader? Long before McCarthy became Administrator, the EPA began working on a new set of guidelines governing the amount and use of ethanol in gasoline sold at the pump. The guidelines, more than likely, were ready in draft form simultaneously with Gina McCarthy’s appointment and the pressure to release them was intense, given earlier promises.

Because the positives and negatives of an increase or decrease in the RFS concerning ethanol use are imprecise, no real precise judgment can be made as to the final numbers, except the admonition, similar to the Hippocratic Oath: they do no harm and, do what the EPA suggests they probably will do, improve the economy, the environment and open fuel choices to the consumer. Sounds simple, but it isn’t! The EPA is considering modification of relatively recently determined RFS.

I understand the position of the oil companies to reduce what are effectively ethanol set asides. They have a financial stake in selling less corn-based ethanol with each gallon of gas, particularly when the content of ethanol rises to E85. Declining gas sales and prices make them eager to secure lower total annual ethanol requirements. Although the data is mixed, I also commiserate with the cattle growers who indicate they have had to pay, at times, higher prices for corn because of ethanol’s reliance on corn. Similarly, I am sensitive to environmentalists who worry that the acreage for corn-based ethanol is eating (excuse the pun) into conservation land and that total greenhouse gas emissions from production to use in vehicles of corn-based ethanol is not, generally, a good deal for the environment. I am not trying to be all things to all groups, but I am trying to weave my way through an intellectual and practical thicket.

The corn farmer’s advocacy of ethanol appears rational from an opportunity-cost standpoint. Corn-based ethanol seems, to them, to support higher prices for corn. They have done well in most recent years. While the facts remain unclear (credible researchers, such as those in the World Bank, have wavered over time on their position), the arguments made by groups and individuals concerned with what they believe is the relationship between corn-based ethanol and food supply should be debated fully. I, also, am inclined to believe those in the security business who feel that increased use of ethanol will reduce our dependency on important oil and lessen the nation’s need to fight wars in part to assure the world and the U.S. a share of global oil supply. Weaning ourselves from oil dependency is national need and priority.

It is tough to judge the efficacy of projections of ethanol sales, because of uncertain economic factors and the constraints put on consumer fuel choices by the oil industry’s almost-monopolistic restrictions at gas stations (just try buying safe, less costly alternative fuels at most gas stations) and federal regulations governing alternative fuel use as well as the sale of conversion kits. There is no free market for fuel.

Responding clearly to the conflicts over the value of corn-based ethanol and the annual total requirements for ethanol is not easy and should suggest the complexity of the involved issues and their presumed relationship to one another. Maybe increased use of corn stover and certainly natural gas-based ethanol for E85 would reduce food for fuel conflicts and lessen possible environmental problems. Nothing is perfect, but the production of ethanol using alternative feedstocks, such as stover and, hopefully soon, natural gas, could make a difference in providing better replacement fuels than just the use of corn based ethanol. Like a Talmudic scholar, I frequently, instead of counting sheep, find myself saying “on one hand, on the other hand” while trying to fall sleep. (I haven’t slept more than three full hours a night since Eisenhower was president.) I end up agreeing with the King in the King and I — “It’s a puzzlement!”

The EPA’s job is a tough one. Its lowering of the total amount of ethanol required to be used with gasoline may or may not have been the right decision. I know the EPA is considering modifying its initial estimates upward. We will have to wait and see what the Agency produces and then take part in a reasonable dialogue as to benefits and costs.

I am a somewhat more concerned about the basis used by the EPA to decide to lower ethanol requirements, at this point in time, than the new rules themselves. The rationale for the amended guidelines will become embedded in rulemaking and decisions could well generate unnecessary policy and constituent conflicts.

The Agency explained its recent decisions, in part, in terms of the absence of infrastructure and the possible harm that higher ethanol blends can do to vehicle engines. “EPA is proposing to adjust the applicable volumes of advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel to address projected availability of qualifying renewable fuels and limitations on the volume of ethanol that can be consumed in gasoline given practical constraints on the supply of higher ethanol blends to the vehicles that can use them and other limits on ethanol blend levels in gasoline (the ethanol blend wall).” Note that for the most part, the EPA does not dwell on environmental, economic or security issues in its basic rationale.

The EPA seems to mix supply and demand in a rather imprecise way. Ethanol is ethanol. Traditional infrastructure (e.g., pipelines) is not readily available now to transport ethanol from corn-based ethanol producers to blenders of gasoline and ethanol. But trains and heavy-duty vehicles are accessible and have provided reasonably efficient pipeline alternatives. Indeed, their availability, assuming modifications for safety concerns, particularly concerning trains, extends strategic options regarding the location of refineries/blenders and storage capacity to lessen leakage of environmentally harmful emissions.

The EPA’s argument for lowering ethanol requirements appears to rest, to a large degree, on a somewhat unconventional definition of supply. As one observer put it, the EPA’s regulations “muddle” the definition of supply with demand. There is an ample supply of ethanol now, indeed, a surplus. The EPA’s decision will likely increase the surplus or reduce the suppliers.

Demand for higher ethanol blends really has not been fairly tested in the analytical prelude to the recently changed regulations. Detroit and its dealers seem unwilling to clearly inform consumers of the government-approved use of blends higher than E15 in the flex-fuel cars that they are now producing and or are committed to producing in the future. Oil company franchise agreements limit replacement fuel pumps at their stations, often to off-center locations…somewhere near the men or women’s bathrooms, if at all. Correspondingly, the EPA’s regulations appear to mute the Agency’s own (and others) positive engine testing on E15 and its approval of E15 and E85 blends, within certain restrictions. Earlier, EPA studies were a bulwark against recent sustained attacks by the oil and, sometimes, the auto industry, as well as their friends on ethanol and its supposed negative affect on engines.

The EPA’s analysis of demand seems further blurred by the fact that if the Agency increased the supply of approved conversion kits, increased numbers of owners of existing vehicles would likely convert from gasoline to less-expensive ethanol-based fuels.

The EPA’s background rationale for the new RFS regulations understandably does not reflect the ability to produce ethanol from natural gas, a fuel in plentiful supply, and a natural gas to ethanol conversion process that may relatively soon be available. To do so would likely require an amendment to the RFS because natural gas is not a renewable fuel. The benefits include lower costs to the consumer, reduced import dependency and likely a decrease in pollutants and emissions. It appears a reasonable approach and provides a reasonable replacement fuel until renewable fuels are ready to compete for prime market time. Natural gas-based ethanol, as well as, as noted earlier, possible use of corn stover, would lessen the intensity of the food vs. fuel debate and the environmentalist concerns.

The EPA has tried hard to develop regulations that secure the public interest and appeal to varied constituencies. I respect its efforts. It’s a complicated task. I remember being asked by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop a report on simplifying its regulations for diverse programs. If I remember correctly, my report was over 600 pages long. Sufficiently said!

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