Trading punches over E15

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Ethanol is in the middle of another bloody super-heavy-weight bout, and it looks like this fight will go the distance.

The fight is over E15, the proposed higher blend of ethanol in the nation's gas tank. In one corner is ag's old nemesis, the Environmental Working Group. This is the same group that put your farm payments online so the world could see how the U.S. taxpayer was supporting agriculture. In EWG's corner is the National Marine Manufacturers Association and, in a strange twist, the livestock groups who fear higher ethanol production will lead to higher feed costs.

EWG's Vice President Direct Craig Cox drew first blood last week when he proclaimed, "Corn ethanol is clearly dead. Science clearly does not support Growth Energy's position.•bCrLf

Growth Energy is the group in ethanol's corner. In March this ethanol trade group submitted a waiver request to EPA to boost the nation's fuel ethanol blend from 10% to 15%. The EPA has gotten a lot of feedback about the proposal and the public comment period was extended to July 20. 

There are all sorts of tangible and intangible reasons for this push toward 15% ethanol. More ethanol production helps rural America with more jobs and a more vital economy. A recent study by North Dakota State University (funded in part by Growth Energy) found that increasing the cap on ethanol to E15 will directly lead to the creation of 136,000 new jobs and generate $24.4 billion in economic activity. And in theory it helps grain farmers by putting yet another floor under corn prices.

So the economics of a higher blend favor grain farmers and ethanol makers, but not livestock guys. Fair enough. From a policy standpoint, it also favors greater energy independence. Adding another 5% of ethanol would reduce the need for 7 billion gallons of imported oil, most of it from unstable regions of the world.

They're arguing every angle, and they're putting their arguments into letters to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Heck, they can't even agree on the technical aspects of whether it will work or not. Whose study do you believe?

According to Roger Johnson, President of National Farmers Union, the current arbitrary cap on the amount of allowable ethanol mixed with gasoline is not based on scientific understanding of how ethanol performs in today's automobiles. Johnson says recent studies conducted by federal and state governments and private entities have all shown that automobile motors can handle blends of ethanol higher than 10% without negative effects. 

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory conducted research on the effects of E15 on motor vehicles and small non-road engines for the U.S. Department of Energy. The study found that when such use was compared to traditional gasoline, E15 caused no significant changes in vehicle tailpipe emissions or drivability.

Chicken Little rhetoric In a battle like this, the rhetoric tends to quickly turn Chicken Little — you know, sky-is-falling kind of stuff. National Marine Manufacturers Association legislative director Matthew Dunn says all 17 million recreational watercraft in the U.S. would have their warranties voided by using E15. Wow! EWG says increasing the blend ratio "could damage vehicle emission control systems, decrease fuel economy, pose fire risks during transportation and retail, degrade water quality, worsen emissions of some air pollutants and escalate health risks for children and other vulnerable people.•bCrLf

Um, fire risks? I'm surprised they didn't throw in •could cause higher dropout rates and obesity•bCrLf while they were at it.

"Contrary to Growth Energy's claims, available data do not demonstrate that cars, other vehicles, and non-road engines burning ethanol in any amount over 10% would meet emission standards over the useful lives of these machines, as is required under the waiver provisions of the federal Clean Air Act,•bCrLf EWG wrote in its letter to Jackson. "Every scientific analysis invoked in Growth Energy's petition is misquoted, taken out of context, or otherwise misinterpreted in an attempt to argue for E15 compatibility with the current cars and equipment.•bCrLf

So if you don't know which study you can believe or which scientist is telling the truth, the cynic in me says it's time to take a closer look at who can land the most wicked punch in this battle. And as far as I can see, the folks holding the best hand are on the side of E15. You've got high profilers like retired General (and presidential wannabe) Wesley Clark serving as co-chair of Growth Energy. And lots of political support, too.

"The people of Iowa know that increasing the amount of ethanol that can be blended into our nation's fuel supply will create green jobs, environmental benefit and help eliminate our nation's dependence on foreign oil,•bCrLf says Iowa Gov. Chet Culver. "This is a practical move in the right direction,•bCrLf adds South Dakota Gov. Michael Rounds. "E15 will create thousands of new jobs and increase our tax base while decreasing our dependence for foreign oil.•bCrLf

A story in Biofuels Digest offers a broader picture of the folks on both sides of this fight.

Perhaps the most formidable politico is Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., an outspoken supporter of higher ethanol blends. EWG has called him every name in the book. At least we know where they stand on Congressman Peterson, who has threatened to shut down climate change legislation because it includes "indirect land use•bCrLf language. In this legislation biofuels would be penalized over the dubious theory that using an acre of corn for ethanol in the United States somehow causes farmers literally halfway around the world to make a land use decision to put virgin land into production to replace that corn acre with a food acre.

But that's a fight for another day.

Let me know what you think, leave your comments below. 

 

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