Upcoming GHG/CAFE rulemaking an opportunity for high-octane fuels

By Erin Voegele | April 02, 2018

On April 2, the U.S. EPA announced the completion of its midterm evaluation process (MTE) for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards for cars and light trucks for model years 2022-2025. The agency determined that current standards are not appropriate and should be revised. Representatives of the ethanol industry are calling the results of the MTE a significant opportunity for high-octane fuels.  

According to the EPA, a joint rulemaking process with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is being launched to develop a notice and comment rulemaking to set “more appropriate GHG emissions standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.”

The newly completed MTE is actually the second MTE completed on the GHG emissions standards for model year (MY) 2022-2025 vehicles.

A part of a 2012 rulemaking, the EPA established MY 2017-2025 light-duty vehicle GHG standards and made a regulatory commitment to conduct a MTE of the standards for 2022-2025. That review was originally completed in 2016. On Nov. 30, 2016, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy proposed to determine that the MY 2022-2025 standards remain as first established, and that rulemaking to change them was not warranted. The public comment period on that proposal was open through Dec. 30, 2016. On Jan. 12, 2017, McCarthy signed her determination to maintain the current GHG emissions standards for MY 2022-2025 light-duty vehicles. In March 2017, current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the EPA would reconsider the mid-term evaluations and McCarthy’s determination.

EPA opened a comment period on the reconsideration on Aug. 21, 2017. The comment period was open through Oct. 5. The agency also held a public hearing on Sept. 6 in Washington, D.C. The Renewable Fuels Association, Growth Energy and American Coalition for Ethanol were among the groups that testified at that hearing and submitted written comments during the public comment period.

“The Obama Administration's determination was wrong,” said Pruitt said on April 2. “Obama’s EPA cut the Midterm Evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high.”

Pruitt’s announcement also addressed issues with California being allowed to set its own vehicle standards. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA sets national standards for vehicle tailpipe emissions of certain pollutants. The CAA also grants a waiver to California that allows the state to impose stricter standards for some pollutants. According to the EPA, “the California waiver is still being reexamined by EPA under Administrator Pruitt’s leadership.”

“Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country,” Pruitt said. “EPA will set a national standard for greenhouse gas emissions that allows auto manufacturers to make cars that people both want and can afford—while still expanding environmental and safety benefits of newer cars. It is in America's best interest to have a national standard, and we look forward to partnering with all states, including California, as we work to finalize that standard.”

ACE called the results of the MTE an opportunity for high-octane fuel. “The previous administration refused to acknowledge the inescapable link between tailpipe emissions and fuel, overlooking the role fuels with a higher octane rating than today’s gasoline could play in reducing GHG emissions and improving fuel economy,” said Brian Jennings, CEO of ACE. “ACE members are encouraged EPA Administrator Pruitt has changed course and sought information on the potential for high-octane blends, and likewise, we appreciated when Bill Wehrum of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation brought up ethanol’s octane benefits in his meeting with us during our recent Washington, D.C. fly-in.

“Some might argue today’s decision means EPA will eventually relax GHG standards allowing more gasoline use and tailpipe pollution, but not if the new standards pave the way for E25-30 high-octane fuel in future engines,” Jennings continued. “Ethanol-enriched, high-octane fuel enables automakers to simultaneously reduce GHG emissions and improve fuel economy. We are confident E25-30 blends will be the most affordable way to thread that needle.”

Growth Energy stressed that midlevel ethanol blends are the key to more efficient engines and meeting future vehicle standards. “For several years, Growth Energy has strongly emphasized the fact that fuels and engines are a system and that high-octane fuels—such as ethanol blends like E25-E30—should be part of this discussion,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy.

“We have provided a wealth of data to show that midlevel ethanol blends can be used by automakers to produce smaller, more efficient engines that will help meet future vehicle standards,” Skor continued. “We will continue to remain engaged with automakers and government stakeholders to ensure that biofuels are part of any long-term plan for engine efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction.”

The RFA is encouraging the EPA and NHTSA to consider the role of high octane fuels in the upcoming rulemaking. “For too long, our light-duty vehicle fuel economy and GHG emission regulations have focused exclusively on the vehicle,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the RFA. “We have repeatedly encouraged EPA, NHTSA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to also consider the important impact of fuels on fuel economy and emissions. Fuels and engines work as integrated systems, and we have provided mounds of evidence that high-octane, low-carbon ethanol blends in optimized engines would be the lowest-cost means of achieving compliance with future fuel economy standards. We are glad to see EPA took notice of that information, and we again urge EPA and NHTSA to use the upcoming rulemaking to establish the roadmap to broad commercialization of high-octane fuels in optimized internal combustion engines. As we pointed out in previous submissions to the agencies, higher octane fuel would unleash and enable a wide pallet of low-cost engine technologies that offer proven fuel efficiency and GHG emission improvements at a low cost for consumers.”

The Urban Air Initiative called EPA’s action an opportunity to improve fuel quality. “We commend EPA for giving this important issue of fuel economy and carbon reductions the thorough and complete evaluation it requires,” said Dave VanderGriend, president of the UAI. “This final determination opens the door for EPA to potentially remove the regulatory barriers limiting midlevel ethanol blends.

"We welcome a more comprehensive review to show high octane fuels such as ethanol can increase efficiency in not just cars of the future but in the cars on the road today,” VanderGriend continued. “But we will also continue to point out how the EPA’s own rules are the primary obstacle to the development of high octane technologies.

"We will continue to work with all the interested parties to share our emissions, efficiency, and health data to see if working together we can achieve these goals of cleaner fuels and efficiency," VanderGriend said.  "That said, we will be adamant in calling on regulators to recognize that internal combustion engines will remain the primary source of propulsion. These cars can achieve significant improvement with clean, high octane fuels.”