Humpty Dumpty and the Blend Wall

By Bob Dinneen | March 05, 2009
In Washington, D.C., much of the debate surrounding renewable fuels and ethanol is taking place inside President Barack Obama's administration and not on Capitol Hill. Near the top of the talking points list is the arbitrary and outdated cap imposed on how much ethanol can be blended into a gallon of gasoline and used in all internal combustion engines in operation. Known as the blend wall, the regulatory cap imposed on ethanol blending is 10 percent per gallon. It is in desperate need of modernization.

The mechanisms by which the blend rate can be increased are reasonably straightforward. One, the U.S. EPA could raise the level to 12 percent or 13 percent by determining that the level of ethanol content in a gallon of gasoline is substantially similar to 10 percent blends. The second mechanism is for EPA to consider and grant a waiver request, complete with all the necessary documentation and supporting evidence, to raise the legal limit of ethanol content to something higher than 10 percent. Therein lies this industry's challenge.

Like Humpty Dumpty, the future of this industry with respect to growth and the development of next-generation technologies in large measure sits precariously on top of the blend wall. To ensure the forward-thinking goals of the Renewable Fuels Standard are achieved and the promising innovations that are being developed today are commercialized, the amount of ethanol in gasoline must increase. Yes, the continued deployment of flexible-fuel vehicles and infrastructure capable of handling ethanol blends up to 85 percent is critical. However, that development will take time and may not be achieved before this industry runs head long into the blend wall. In order to guarantee the success of new technologies and our public policy goals, the ethanol blend level for all vehicles must be increased.

However, bravado is not a substitute for the sound science and data that must accompany any waiver request submitted by this industry. I firmly believe that the science will support our case. Preliminary data from a variety of tests give me great confidence. For instance, a University of Minnesota test conducted with the help of the Renewable Fuels Association tested 20 percent ethanol blends in 40 pairs of vehicles including a variety of makes, models and engine configurations (such as hybrids), found there were no show stoppers in the performance or drivability of the vehicles that would prevent further testing from moving forward. Additional testing by the U.S. DOE has shown preliminary results that support those found by the University of Minnesota. However, more testing is likely needed, particularly focusing on the emissions and durability of engines using higher ethanol blends.

The RFA firmly believes that this testing should continue to move forward as rapidly as possible and that cooperation among all stakeholders is essential to getting the science and the regulations correct. I take great solace in the fact that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has aggressively brought the issue to the forefront and is having discussion with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Ultimately, the final decision is up to Jackson and her staff at EPA.

The stakes in this debate are high. Our science and strategy to obtain a waiver must be consistent and sound. There is too much at stake. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, if we fail and fall off the wall, there are no king's men waiting to put this industry back together again.

Bob Dinneen
President and CEO
Renewable Fuels Association