Reflections on what could have been

Ah, summertime ..., and the livin' is easy, as the song says. But if not for the U.S. EPA, it could have been even easier. This article appears in the 2016 issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Ray Defenbaugh | August 15, 2016

Ah, summertime ..., and the livin' is easy, as the song says. But if not for the U.S. EPA, it could have been even easier. Easier on our customers, easier on consumers and easier on our lungs had we not been restricted in selling higher blends of ethanol. 

With summer almost gone as we get into September, I can't help but think of what might have been had we been able to offer a cleaner, higher-octane and less-expensive fuel. The good news is that this completely unfounded, irrational restriction on selling E15 due to an interpretation of the vapor pressure rules (RVP) will be lifted at summer’s end and, we hope soon, year-round. 

As an early supporter of the Urban Air Initiative, I understand the games EPA plays and how their testing and certification procedures mask the true value of ethanol and, in fact, literally present the opposite of what real world results show. Higher ethanol blends dilute toxics, dilute sulfur, reduce tailpipe emissions and reduce carbon inputs at the refinery level, among other things. The rationale EPA uses to not allow blends above E10 during the summer is that the original allowance of an extra pound—the much ballyhooed 1-pound waiver—is defined as being for fuels containing 10 percent ethanol. Well, I have news for the mathematically challenged folks at EPA: E15 and higher blends contain 10 percent ethanol. More to the point is that the increase in vapor pressure after ethanol is added peaks at just under 10 and actually begins to decrease, so any concerns about increased evaporative emissions is nonsense.

UAI first rang the alarm bell with Steve VanderGriend's excellent white paper on the flaws of the underlying testing and emissions profiling EPA used in the EPAct Study. The paper, “Understanding the Emissions Benefits of Higher Ethanol Blends: EPA Modeling Fails to Tell the Whole Story,” is available on The EPAct study was the basis for the MOVEs (Motor Vehicle Emissions Simulator) Model that states are required to use to gauge the emissions impacts of motor fuels, including E10 and higher blends. When they do so, based on the flawed methodology, it does not bode well for ethanol. 

This decades old, ingrained fixation by EPA and many environmental groups on vapor pressure dates back to the early days of federal reformulated gasoline and low RVP programs. It was assumed that simply reducing vapor pressure and adding oxygenates would address most regulated emissions. In fact, vapor pressure alone was considered an equal option to the federal formula. EPA never has fully embraced the notion that the oxygenates such as ethanol in gasoline are what really provide the most benefit, and to the extent evaporative emissions need to be reduced, increased ethanol volume over 10 percent lowers RVP. 

If the sights, sounds and smells of your summer include gasoline, that alone should tell you something. The escaping vapors have nothing to do with ethanol and everything to do with the high aromatic content of the gasoline, which is the root cause of material degradation and escaping fumes. Urban Air has conducted simple but clearly revealing tests comparing E0 to E10 and the ethanol-free gasoline has proven to be the real problem in terms of breaking down materials and causing fuel permeation that leads to increased evaporative emissions.

In addition to being an early board member and supporter of the Urban Air Initiative, I also have been very active in the Prime the Pump program—a critical piece of the puzzle in terms of getting the fuel into the market. However, without the recognition of ethanol's true value, we cannot get past the current blend wall and maximize the results of Prime the Pump. For that reason, these two very important initiatives have to work together.

And, let’s not for a minute think this discussion stops at E15. Automakers, the Department of Energy, governors and even health experts are getting behind E30 as an optimum blend level, and why not? Adding ethanol to gasoline improves it in every way. It lowers carbon, reduces common air pollutants contributing to smog formation, lessens CO2 emissions, and provides clean octane to replace toxic aromatics. And the more the better.

Let’s vow that this is the last summertime we will ever be restricted in the amount of ethanol we can offer consumers.

Author: Ray Defenbaugh
Co-chair Urban Air Initiative, CEO Big River Resources