E15. What Now?

By Ron Lamberty | July 22, 2011

While some in the ethanol industry may have imagined that EPA’s E15 label rollout would put an end to the foot-dragging that is keeping the approved ethanol blend out of gas stations, it instead appears to have just changed some of the foot-draggers into heel-diggers and/or kickers and screamers.

Yes, there are rules and regulations that need to be adjusted or rewritten, and there need to be specifications and official i’s that need to be dotted and t’s that need to be crossed. And there is the troublesome summer Reid vapor pressure rules that will probably keep E15 out of stations until at least fall, and will need to be dealt with before next summer. The fact that most regulators didn’t want to rewrite rule books until E15 is a reality was expected, and those changes are underway right now.

But what most did not expect was the unbelievable level of misinformed rhetoric and vitriol being aimed at a fuel that has done exactly what ethanol was asked to do when the first renewable fuel standard was passed. Ethanol has helped improve air quality across the nation, has kept fuel prices from going even higher, and has helped bring the nation close to providing more than half of our own fuel—something we haven’t done in over 20 years. And yet the current opposition is as strong as support was only a few years ago.

One attempt at an E15 “do-over” took the form of Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin asking companies that didn’t offer a shred of science during the E15 debate to come to, ironically, the House Science Committee to tell non-scientific, anti-ethanol ghost stories. Those stories were primarily automakers saying that they might void warranties of cars that use E15, as well as the continuing shrill whines from the small engine people, whose engines aren’t supposed to use the stuff anyway.

The warranty discussion is interesting, because contrary to what most people believe, a car company can’t actually just “void a warranty.” Unfortunately, most people don’t question that statement, and can’t afford to fight an automaker in a court of law. If challenged, in the case of E15, a car company could only deny coverage if it could prove that ethanol was the only possible cause of a vehicle’s problem. Not only that, but since their warranties cover E10, they would have to prove that the extra five percent ethanol caused a problem that would never have happened with E10. It defies logic to assume that car makers could offer such proof and that, for some reason, they simply chose not to provide that information while EPA spent two years doing their own, uneventful, E15 testing.

But what does all of that mean for E15 availability? Where does all of this leave station owners?

Frightened, mostly.

That is the purpose of the ghost story, and the E15 spook stories have come from many angles, and have been very effective.  But as happened a few years ago, when ethanol opponents tried to scare marketers out of selling E10, some marketer will step forward and offer E15 to his customers. And his customers, and some of his competitors’ customers, will buy it. When that happens, the marketers who originally joined in the protest against E15 will start to ask why more was not done to make it easier for them to sell E15—and why it wasn’t done sooner.

Maybe then, some elected official will hold hearings to find out why that happened.

Author: Ron Lamberty
Vice President/Director of Market Development
American Coalition for Ethanol
(605) 334-3381