I've been going over the EPA's ruling yesterday partially granting the waiver request from Growth Energy, an ethanol trade association, to allow gasoline with up to 15% ethanol to be used in cars not specifically designed as flexible fuel vehicles. The request had created a serious dilemma for the EPA, because granting it could jeopardize the integrity of millions of consumers' car engines and fuel systems, but turning it down would call the entire national renewable fuels strategy into question. What looks like the agency's attempt to find a middle ground that could satisfy all parties might turn out to have little practical impact on the ethanol market for some time, while still unleashing a potentially very disruptive shock wave on the entire motor fuels industry in this country.
If that sounds contradictory, you have to look at the specifics of what the EPA has agreed to here, and overlay them on the highly-competitive, relatively low-return network of gasoline blending, distribution and sales infrastructure through which it must eventually feed. Instead of approving E15, a blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline for all vehicles, or even just for vehicles produced since 2001--as many had speculated they would--the agency has only given the green light for putting this fuel into cars made in the last four years. I might note that this interval includes some of the lowest US car sales rates in recent memory, so yesterday's ruling affects just a fifth or so of the total US light-duty vehicle fleet. The decision for another tranche of cars built between 2001-2006 is to be made after further study, perhaps by the end of the year.
In essence this means that no fuel producer can afford to stop supplying the E10 (or less) fuel that is compatible with all those pre-2007 cars, and precious few retailers are likely to take a bet on switching one of their tanks to a new fuel that only a fraction of their customers can take advantage of, once all the other legalities of introducing E15 into the market have been satisfied. So while this decision might seem to be about promoting the use of more home-grown, renewable fuel in preference to petroleum products that depend on deepwater wells and foreign suppliers, its implementation hinges on a very lopsided business decision for a group of mainly independent fuel retailers and distributors, rather than the major oil companies whose brands we see on filling station polesigns.
A retail gas station has a finite number of product dispensers drawing on an even smaller number of underground storage tanks. In order for a retailer to introduce a new fuel without ripping up the forecourt (which entails being out of business for several months and possibly longer, should he have the misfortune to discover a leak in the process) then he must do the math on how many gallons per month of the new product he might sell, and at what margin, against how many gallons and how much margin he'd lose from the discontinued product. This is the dynamic that has contributed to the excruciatingly slow lift-off of E85, which is at the heart of why E15 even became an issue. It was never supposed to be necessary, because the extra ethanol mandated under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was intended to be sold in big, 85% at-a-time chunks, not little 10-15% slices, and into a gasoline market that was still growing at its historical 1-2% per year clip.
So as a retailer--a small and not very lucrative business--do you give up premium unleaded? Seems an obvious choice, since it's probably your lowest-volume offering. But unless you have a dedicated mid-grade tank, you need premium to blend in the pump to make mid-grade, which accounts for more of your sales. Worse yet, your margin per gallon on premium is your best, followed by your margin on mid-grade. Or you could give up diesel, though if you do, you'll never see those customers again: not on the forecourt, and not in your store, where you make much of your monthly profit. The alternative is an expensive investment in a new tank and dispenser, against a highly questionable return. By now it should be obvious this is a losing game for retailers, who as far as I can see would choose to continue to sell E10 to everyone, including post-2006 cars affected by the E15 ruling, and just ignore the EPA.
The folks who won't be able to ignore the EPA will be the refiners and major fuel blenders. That's because they continue to fall under the authority of the steadily increasing RFS mandates, requiring them to sell a higher percentage of biofuel every year until 2022, or pay large penalties. And while the EPA was kind enough to reduce the mandate for cellulosic ethanol last year and this year--for the very good reason that it isn't yet available in the expected quantities--the chances of getting a waiver in the future because a company has run out of room to blend ethanol into E10 look pretty low, when the EPA can just insist that you make E15 or E85, both now legal. This sets up a situation in which suppliers will shortly need to induce their retailers to take on one or both of these products and make it worth their while, further depressing the margins in this part of the business and making an exit strategy even more attractive.
It's hard to gauge exactly what this could mean for consumers. At a minimum, it might lead to drivers of older cars pulling into some gas stations only to find that the unleaded fuel advertised on the sign is actually not compatible with their particular car. (The EPA as part of yesterday's ruling has promised pump labeling sufficiently clear that no one will fill up with E15 by mistake.) Or in a bigger station, all the E10 pumps might be over on one side of the convenience store, and all the E15 pumps on the other. And of course this raises the awkward question of why consumers would ever consciously choose to fill up with a fuel containing at least 2% fewer BTUs and thus offering 2% lower mpg and range, unless it's going to be cheaper for them--which is inconsistent with E15 carrying sufficiently higher margins to make it worth the retailer's effort to sell.
The result looks like a dog's breakfast, although I can't honestly say I'd have ruled much differently if I were running the EPA and only charged with upholding the RFS and making this ruling on the basis of whether it would increase the overall pollution from the affected vehicles, rather than on whether its policy and ostensible environmental benefits outweigh its costs and risks for vehicle longevity and consumer value. The EPA's supporting documents included evidence that a significant proportion of E10 already approaches 11% ethanol, so E15 means routinely exposing engines and fuel systems to a mix of 16% or more ethanol, even if they were only designed with 10% in mind. Who will bear the liability for the expensive repairs that some cars will require? There are few aspects of this situation that offer consumers any upside, but I see ample downside, if only from having to bear the additional costs that will be passed on by retailers who are in no position to absorb them.