Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Half a Loaf

When I wrote Monday's posting mentioning the impending conflict between the government's requirement to increase the volume of biofuels blended into gasoline and the current approved maximum ethanol blending limit of 10%, I was unaware that the EPA was about to issue a response to the industry group that had requested a waiver to increase that limit to 15%. But while the letter the agency sent to Growth Energy yesterday deferred any ruling until mid-2010, it gave a clear indication that the EPA is considering splitting the baby, in the form of an increase for part of the fleet: those cars built in 2001 or later. Sometimes such a quasi-Solomonic decision reflects wisdom and flexibility; at other times it elevates compromise above common sense. I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that I suspect this case falls into the latter category.

First, we should applaud the EPA for declining to be stampeded by an interest group into making a decision before its own test results are all in, particularly concerning the impact of blends containing higher proportions of ethanol on the durability and emissions (air pollutants, not CO2) of a representative cross-section of the US vehicle fleet, which numbers roughly 240 million passenger cars and light trucks/SUVs. The agency is right to insist that the science should be clear before the blending limit is increased. Unfortunately, there's more than science involved.

If any group outside the energy industry ought to have a clear understanding of the consequences of fragmenting the marketplace through the creation of Balkanized environmental specifications for fuels, it ought to be the EPA, since they and their state regulatory counterparts have presided over just such a system in the last couple of decades. This is why gasoline blended for use in Oregon or Washington can't be sold in California, and gasoline blended for rural areas can't be sold in metropolitan areas that have been designated as "non-attainment" areas for ozone and other pollutants. This has a direct impact on consumers by raising the cost of suppliers' inventories and deliveries to areas with divergent specifications, and more significantly by delaying the response to local supply outages. If the EPA is seriously considering establishing two blending standards for ethanol, it would further fragment the fuels market, not along geographic lines, but down to individual service stations, because the likelihood of them all carrying Unleaded Regular (E10), Unleaded Regular (E15), Mid-grade (E10), Mid-grade (E15), and so on, in addition to diesel and eventually E85 and whatever else they dream up is essentially zero.

Let's rewind the tape for a moment to recall how the situation the EPA is attempting to address arose in the first place. When the Congress set the new Renewable Fuel Standard as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, it was obvious to all involved that even if US gasoline sales had continued to grow at 1-2% per year, as they consistently had prior to the Great Recession, we would rapidly reach the point at which the quantity of ethanol mandated for use would exceed 10% of our annual motor fuel use--long before the mandate reached its 36 billion gallons per year (gpy) target in 2022, including a billion gpy for biodiesel. That wasn't deemed to be a problem, since E85 sales were expected to take off in a big way, soaking up all that extra ethanol. In fact, before it started to shrink the gasoline pool looked like it could accommodate the entire 35 billion gpy of ethanol with an E85 sales percentage as low as around 18%. Today you'd probably have to bump that up to nearly 25%. Unfortunately for this scenario, E85 sales are not on any kind of trajectory to reach that threshold.

One E85 website reports that 2,211 gas stations around the US sell E85. Finding reliable statistics on actual E85 sales is time-consuming, but if all these stations sold at the current Minnesota average of around 4,000 gallons per month, then total US E85 sales are just over 100 million gpy. That's less than 0.1% of US gasoline sales, or just about enough to absorb the output of one typical ethanol plant. These figures also suggest that the roughly 6 million "flexible fuel vehicles" apparently on the road today are consuming E85 less than 10% of the time, either because of availability, or because the average discount between E85 and gasoline is typically much less than the 25% or so necessary to compensate for its lower energy content. And availability is a function of the significant expenses involved for service stations in either converting an existing tank and pumps for a higher-volume product to E85, or investing in additional tanks and pumps--including the downtime involved in such a project.

In other words, the ethanol industry (and the EPA) are in a bind now because the strategy for increasing ethanol use hinged on the expansion of sales for a new blend of ethanol and gasoline that is incompatible with existing service station infrastructure and with most vehicles on the road, and their best solution to the breakdown of that strategy appears to involve introducing yet another new blend of ethanol and gasoline that is incompatible with existing service station infrastructure and many cars on the road. Using this logic, the answer to the financial crisis would have been to launch another wave of new financial derivatives and sub-prime loans. Perhaps it's time for a simpler answer: If the tests by the EPA and DOE indicate that a significant number of vehicles could be harmed by a 15% blend of ethanol in gasoline, or that such a blend would increase local air pollution, then surely it is time to call a halt to the annual increases in mandated ethanol use until a more practical solution can be found.

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