Ethanol Up For Debate

While biofuel is seen as a bipartisan solution to energy independence, environmental sustainability and fuel prices, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, says the pushback for biofuel’s expansion comes from both big oil and the “far left.”

“The pushback does not just come from the oil industry, the pushback comes from those on the very far left that really don’t want to see ethanol because it is a liquid fuel,” she tells farm broadcasters in Washington D.C. “The push is to go EV.”

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks on biofuel pushback

Wisconsin’s primary renewable energy resource is biofuels. America’s Dairyland is among both the top 10 corn-producing states and fuel ethanol producers in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The state’s nine ethanol plants can produce almost 600 million gallons of fuel ethanol per year, which is more than twice the amount consumed in the state. 

But Environmental Working Group deems ethanol a “dead-end fuel.” Scott Faber leads the Environmental Working Group’s government affairs efforts, testifying before Congress on agriculture policy.

“In light of the fact that electric vehicles are now being widely adopted, I think it’s time to say … that corn ethanol is a dead-end fuel,” he responds to Mid-West Farm Report. “Maybe there’s a role for biofuels in long-haul transport or other parts of the economy, but as we quickly move from using liquid fuels to electric vehicles, there’s not a place … in our fuel mix for corn ethanol.”

Scott Faber calls ethanol a “dead-end”

However, the Biden administration has emphasized the importance of biofuels in reaching the nation’s clean energy goals. As Washington allocates infrastructure investments to transition the U.S. to electric vehicles, and solar and wind power, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg underlines the key role biofuels play in that transition. 

“There’s no question that biofuels will be a very important part of America’s energy mix,” he tells farm broadcasters in D.C. Buttigieg points to maritime and aviation fuel as a pathway to growth for renewable liquid fuel. 

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talks biofuel future

But U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan could not give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to whether or not EPA would expand E15 sales or biofuel blending.

Earlier this month, Gov. Tony Evers joined eight Midwest governors in a letter to the EPA in support of the year-round sale of E15 fuel. This follows a letter sent to EPA in November 2021 advocating for E15 which led the Biden administration to issue a temporary waiver to allow E15 sales in the summer.

E15, or Unleaded 88, is a mix of regular gasoline and 15 percent ethanol, a plant-based fuel typically made from corn, and is cheaper for consumers.

EPA Administrator Regan agrees biofuels, such as E15, are a tool to reduce costs for Americans, which is why the administration extended the E15 sales waiver during this period of high fuel prices.

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor explains EPA regulates the volatility of fuel to reduce smog potential during the summer months. Ethanol evaporates in warmer temperatures. In the 1990s, EPA approved E10 for year-round sales because it has better tailpipe emissions than gasoline without ethanol. That has not been extended to E15 despite it being a higher ethanol blend.

“We simply need the agency to recognize a 15 percent ethanol blend is actually better for the environment than a 10 percent blend, so let’s have the regulations catch up to that reality,” Skor tells Mid-West Farm Report.

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor responds to EPA delay

Regan responds to Mid-West Farm Report: “we’ve done the necessary analysis for the summertime, to look at not having any adverse impacts from an air quality standpoint… for the time period that we’re looking at currently.” He did not give any indication on if EPA is going to make year-round E15 sales permanent.

Ernst, who sits on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Committee, says the debate between environmental activists, big oil, and ethanol supporters brings challenges to Congress’s ability to push biofuels forward and make year-round E15 sales permanent. She notes the path forward has to be through Congress: “We cannot entrust the EPA with this obligation.”

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, explains best E15 pathway

The Renewable Fuel Standard requires oil refiners and gasoline and diesel importers to mix biofuel volumes based on a percentage of its petroleum product sales or buy credits from those that do. The EPA delivered its final rule to set 2021 and 2022 RFS renewable volume obligations to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The rule may also revise the existing 2020 RVO. This review is a final step before the rule is law. The biofuels industry is looking to use this rulemaking to get RFS back on track… and mix more biofuel. 

Regan carefully previews what Americans may expect coming out of the review process.

“2022 begins to paint the picture of the trajectory for which the biofuels’ role should be,” Regan says. “We hope that 2022 sends a signal to the market and is responsive to the President’s statement that agriculture will have a seat at the table, biofuels will have a role to play, advanced biofuels especially.” 

He adds the administration hopes the rule in 2023 and beyond will allow RFS to “finally do what Congress intended for the program to do.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan shares biofuel rulemaking insight