Octane on ‘Sesame Street’

FROM THE FEBRUARY ISSUE: Striving for higher-octane fuels shouldn't mean saying goodbye to the RFS.
By Doug Durante | January 22, 2019

Anyone with kids or grandkids might be familiar with the show “Sesame Street.” An educational segment designed to develop cognitive, rational thinking would show something like an apple, an orange, a banana and a bicycle, asking which doesn’t belong. Based on things we are seeing in Washington, some in Congress and the petroleum industry need to learn from “Sesame Street.”

Why is the quest for high-octane fuels to reduce petroleum consumption and increase efficiency in vehicles paired with getting rid of the Renewable Fuel Standard? In the waning hours of the last Congress, the Energy and Commerce Committee continued its misguided effort to address largely unfounded concerns surrounding the RFS, while considering raising the minimum octane standard in gasoline.

The ethanol industry has responded to the U.S. EPA’s requests for information about how high-octane fuels can help increase fuel economy and reduce emissions. The answer is easy—high-octane fuels allow automakers to produce higher-compression engines to achieve significant mileage increases. If that octane comes from ethanol and not the oil barrel, it achieves the additional requirement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And it increases the market for home-grown, renewable ethanol, which enhances energy security, stimulates the economy, saves consumers money at the pump, and displaces carcinogens in gasoline.

It is the mindset of the petroleum industry, however, that any advancement for ethanol and biofuels must be offset by some other action—we should not get any of the fuel market, and to the extent we do, we should be happy with what we have and be quiet. And they’ve tried to impart that belief on Congress. If we have the audacity to suggest we can provide octane for the next generation of vehicles, then we must give back the share of the market we have achieved to date. Therefore, any increase in octane, which ethanol could capture, can only be paired with RFS “reform.”

Enough already. These two things do not belong together. First of all, we need clean, low-carbon octane to meet the policy objectives of our fuel economy and greenhouse gas programs. The dirty little secret of the petroleum industry is that Clean Air Act requirements to reduce toxic, carcinogenic compounds in gasoline preclude the increased use of aromatics like benzene, toluene and xylene (BTX), which has been that industry’s go-to answer for octane. So if they can keep the octane levels low enough, they can continue to use BTX.  Legislation floated late last year not only offered a lower octane than what we are capable of, but would effectively cap ethanol blends to 20 percent volume. And, ignoring the lessons of “Sesame Street,” the oil industry and its friends in Congress said, “By the way, we’d like to sunset the RFS.” They refer to this as a “transition” from the RFS to high octane, as if the logical progression of a renewable program is to morph into a nonrenewable program.

Second, the RFS is not broken—there is no need to fix it, at least not the 15 billion gallons (waivers notwithstanding) that are already in gasoline. If the advanced biofuel sector needs retooling, that is a separate and distinct conversation from us moving to a cleaner, lower-carbon, healthier fuel via high octane.

At Clean Fuels Development Coalition, we continue to partner with the Urban Air Initiative on a range of critical issues to clean up gasoline by reducing aromatics. Dave VanderGriend and the UAI team have peeled back the façade built over years of neglect by EPA and shown that the negative health impacts of gasoline are undeniable, but avoidable. UAI is calling on EPA to use its authority to regulate fuels to protect public health by establishing an octane standard that would open the door to higher ethanol blends. I would add to that the need for Congress to watch “Sesame Street” and realize cleaner fuels and efforts to kill the RFS simply do not go together.



Author: Doug Durante
Executive Director
Clean Fuels Development Coalition
301.718.0077
cfdcinc@aol.com