Vehicle emissions standards should address high-octane fuels

By Erin Voegele | August 25, 2021

Representatives of the ethanol industry called on the U.S. EPA to address high-octane, low-carbon fuels as part of its proposed greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards for 2023-2026 light-duty vehicles during a hearing held Aug. 25.

The EPA on Aug. 5 released a proposed rule to set light-duty vehicle GHG emission standards through 2026. Despite calls from government officials and industry trade groups, the proposed rule does not currently address biofuels or include a high-octane standard.

The proposed rule aims to revise the SAFE Vehicles Rule finalized by the Trump administration in March 2020. That rule replaced CAFE and GHG emissions standards put in place by the Obama administration. President Biden directed the EPA and U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to revise the existing CAFE and GHG emission standards through an executive order issued in January 2021. 

The proposed rule would set an industry-wide target of 171 grams of CO2 per mile, or a 52 miles per gallon (mpg) equivalent, for model year 2026 passenger cars and light trucks. That is more stringent than the 205 grams of CO2 per mile, or 43.3 mpg, standard put in place by the current SAFE rule. A previous rule put in place in 2012 would have set the standards at 177 grams of CO2 per mile, or 50.1 mpg.

The agency held a virtual hearing on the proposed rule on Aug. 25. Representatives of the American Coalition for Ethanol, Renewable Fuels Association and Growth Energy were among those to offer testimony at the event.

Testimony offered by Brian Jennings, CEO of ACE, emphasized how the proposal must place much greater emphasis on improving the quality of liquid fuel, which 98 percent of the 270 million light-duty vehicles on the road use, by including steps to replace fossil fuel with a lower carbon and higher octane fuel, such as ethanol, in order to significantly cut CO2 emissions from their tailpipes.

“If the overarching goal is net-zero emissions by mid-century, let’s start making progress right now by taking full advantage of the 15 billion gallons of domestically produced ethanol available today as an affordable way to boost octane and meaningfully reduce GHG emissions from gasoline powered engines,” Jennings remarks state.

Jennings testimony on behalf of ACE members concludes by highlighting three recommendations for EPA’s consideration in the final rule that ACE will detail, along with others, in its submitted comments. Those recommendations include the establishment of a research octane number (RON) rating for fuel in the range of 98 to 100 RON with 25 to 30 percent ethanol and provide automakers with a corresponding cert fuel for engine testing purposes; adoption of the latest U.S. Department of Energy GREET model with respect to the lifecycle GHG emissions of ethanol and other transportation fuels; and the establishment of a technology-neutral approach that provides automakers with incentives to produce flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) and vehicles designed to achieve optimal efficiency and reduced emissions on high octane ethanol blends.

Testimony offered by Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the RFA, also focused on the inclusion of high-octane, low-carbon fuels. “If our nation is to reach its goal of net-zero GHG emissions by mid-century, we’ll need both cleaner, more efficient cars and cleaner, more efficient fuels,” Cooper said in prepared remarks. “That’s why RFA’s member companies recently committed to achieving a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050 or sooner.”

RFA expressed its disappointment that EPA’s proposed GHG standards continue to focus solely on engines and vehicles, while ignoring the important influence of fuels on emissions and mileage.

“Unfortunately, EPA’s proposal fails to recognize that the fuels we put into our engines can have as much—or more—impact on fuel economy and GHG emissions as the engine technologies themselves,” Cooper said, noting that the proposal assumes automakers will increase production of certain engine technologies that rely on higher-octane fuels. “The proposed rule counts on broad deployment of high-compression ratio engines that will require high-octane fuel but does nothing to ensure those high-octane fuels will actually be produced and available in the marketplace.”

Cooper concluded by calling on EPA to use the current rulemaking, as well as the upcoming process to set GHG standards for 2027 and beyond, to create a higher octane standard for gasoline.

“Action by the EPA will be necessary to catalyze the development and introduction of cleaner, more efficient fuels into the marketplace, just as EPA action was required to eliminate lead, limit benzene, and reduce the sulfur content of our gasoline and diesel fuel,” Cooper added. “We respectfully ask that EPA use the current rulemaking process and future rulemakings to establish the roadmap for increasing the required minimum octane rating of our nation’s light-duty vehicle fuel.”

Chris Bliley, senior vice president of regulatory affairs at Growth Energy, urged EPA to consider the vital role that environmentally sustainable fuel options, such as ethanol, will play in reducing GHG emissions from the current and future vehicle fleet in his testimony.

“We appreciate EPA’s work to reshape the nation’s transportation mix to make it more sustainable as it is a central driver for our industry as well,” Bliley said. “Vehicles and fuels operate as a system and liquid fuels will continue to play a dominant role in the transportation sector for decades to come, even as alternative technologies flourish. As such, it is imperative to consider the vital role that environmentally sustainable fuel options such as ethanol will play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the current and future vehicle fleet.”