Guest opinion: EPA should dump E15, ethanol mandate

2013-02-16T00:05:00Z Guest opinion: EPA should dump E15, ethanol mandateBy DAVID L. TYLER The Billings Gazette
February 16, 2013 12:05 am  • 

One of the worst decisions made by departing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was to approve the use of E15, a caustic fuel that can destroy automobile engines and fuel systems.

According to the American Automobile Association, the damage from E15, a blend consisting of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline, could result in costly repairs for unsuspecting consumers. Automakers have said they may void warranties for anyone using E15, providing no protection for motorists.

The problem affects millions of car owners, and current developments are making it, if anything, more urgent to remove E15. There are 3,000 E15 stations in the United States, the majority in the Midwest. Most cars were never designed for E15. Only about 5 percent, or 12 million of the more than 240 million light-duty vehicles on U.S. roads are approved by manufacturers to use the fuel. These vehicles are mainly flex-fuel models.

Now that Lisa Jackson is leaving the EPA, her successor should suspend the sale of E15 until consumers are better informed and protected at the pump. But there is a larger issue at hand that Congress needs to address.

Renewable Fuel Standard

In 2005, Congress enacted the Renewable Fuel Standard, which contemplated that by 2010 the advanced biofuels industry would have taken off. But that hasn’t happened due to economic and technological factors. So production of cellulosic ethanol made from wood chips, switchgrass and other sources still has not gotten off the ground and probably won’t for the foreseeable future. Corn ethanol is the only domestically produced biofuel that is commercially available in large quantities.

Corn ethanol provides 27 percent lower fuel economy than gasoline on an energy equivalent basis. So instead of helping consumers, they have to burn more fuel to create the same amount of energy.

Nor does ethanol significantly reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil. Imported oil now accounts for less than half of the oil consumed nationally, down from nearly two-thirds just a few years ago.

A revolution in shale-oil production has made the difference. We have all these shale-oil resources, thanks to new drilling technology –- a combination of hydrofracking and horizontal drilling -- that is enabling companies to reach huge deposits in the Bakken shale underlying parts of North Dakota and Montana as well as large deposits in Texas, Ohio and other states. California is expected to become the next big source of shale oil. All of this raises the question of why the government needs to mandate ethanol’s increasing use as an alternative to gasoline.

The renewable fuels standard calls for an increase in ethanol production from 13 billion gallons this year to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Eating up corn crop

Forty percent of the U.S. crop is gobbled up for ethanol production. Corn production has been hard-hit by drought in large parts of the Midwest, jacking up the cost of food in the United States and abroad. At this rate, in less than a decade, the nation’s entire corn crop will be used to make ethanol, unless cellulosic ethanol becomes available.

EPA should recognize that biofuels production has caused groundwater levels to plummet in some Midwestern states, and that serious water pollution has resulted from increased use of fertilizer and pesticides. Beyond that, the use of E15 is damaging automobile engines and fuel systems, and ethanol is no longer needed to achieve North American energy independence. EPA has the power to waive the ethanol mandate. Let’s hope it uses that power.

David L. Tyler is a petroleum geologist who lives in Billings.

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