EPA delays decision making on E15 fuel waiver

By Erin Voegele | November 11, 2009
Report posted Dec. 1, 2009, at 11:40 a.m. CST

On Dec. 1 the U.S. EPA announced that it will not make a final determination of the E15 fuel waiver until mid-2010. In March 2009, Growth Energy submitted a waiver to allow for the use of up to 15 percent ethanol in gasoline. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA was required to respond to the waiver request by Dec. 1, 2009.

The EPA has been working to evaluate the waiver request and has received a broad range of public comments as part of the administrative rulemaking process. In a letter sent to Growth Energy on Dec. 1, the agency said that to-date testing has indicated that the engines of newer cars will likely be able to handle ethanol blends higher than the current 10 percent limit. However, the agency will delay making a final decision on the fuel waiver until more testing data is available. On a positive note, the EPA also announced that it has begun the process to craft the labeling requirements that will be necessary if the blending limit is raised.

"As we are evaluating [the] E15 fuel waiver petition, we want to make sure we have all necessary science to make the right decision," said the EPA in a letter addressed to Growth Energy Co-Chairmen Gen. Wesley Clark and Jeff Broin. "Although all the studies have not been completed, our engineering assessment to date indicates that the robust fuel, engine and emissions control systems on newer vehicles (likely 2001 and newer model years) will likely be able to accommodate higher ethanol blends, such as E15. However, we continue to evaluate the question of component durability when E15 is used over many thousands of miles and there is ongoing study being conducted by [the U.S. DOE] that will provide critical data on this issue."

According to the EPA, the DOE's evaluation program involves the complete testing of 19 vehicles to examine the long term emissions impacts of higher ethanol blend on newer motor vehicles. Data is presently available on only two of those vehicles. In its letter to Growth Energy, the EPA said that testing on 12 additional vehicles is expected to be complete by the end of May 2010, while testing on all 19 vehicles is expected to be complete by August 2010. "As a result, EPA expects to have a significant amount of the total data being generated through this testing program available to us by mid-June," stated the agency in the letter. "Should the test results remain supportive and provide the necessary basis, we would be in a position to approve E15 for 2001and newer vehicles in the mid-year timeframe. Of course, if the data highlight potential problems, then the decision may need to be delayed until all testing is received and reviewed."

"This announcement is a strong signal that we are preparing to move to E15, a measure that will create 136,000 new U.S. jobs, cut greenhouse gas emissions and lessen America's dependence on imported oil," Clark said.

"While we believe the data included in the Green Jobs Waiver supports raising the blend to E15, critics have called for additional testing," Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis said. "We are confident the ongoing tests will further confirm the data we submitted in the Growth Energy Green Jobs Waiver and silence those critics, allowing more American-produced energy to enter the market EPA is also to be commended for its intent to begin labeling and public education process sooner rather than later; this decision means we could begin to move to E15 as soon as engine testing is completed in the spring."

However, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, the EPA's decision to delay a decision on the E15 fuel wavier could negatively affect the ethanol industry. "This delay threatens to paralyze the continued evolution of America's ethanol industry," said RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen. "Moreover, this delay will chill investment in advanced biofuel technologies at a critical time in their development and commercialization. In order to avoid paralysis by analysis, EPA should immediately approve intermediate ethanol blends, such as E12. Allowing for a 20 percent increase in ethanol's potential share of the market would provide some breathing room for the industry while EPA finishes its testing on E15."

In addition, the RFA questions the EPA's decision to limit its research to newer vehicles. According to the RFA, data to date has shown no ill-effects of increased ethanol use in any vehicle, regardless of model year. For this reason, the RFA encourages the EPA to either look at the waiver request with the entire range of vehicles in mind, or provide a scientific rationale for excluding older model vehicles from testing.