SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – As gas prices continue to rise, some are looking for options to ease the pain felt by commuters at the fuel pump.
Recently, South Dakota Sen. John Thune joined with Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in calling for President Joe Biden to allow for the year-round sale of E15 ethanol, which they say will help ease the price of fuel. Currently, E15 fuel cannot be sold in conventional markets between June 1 and September 15.
Could this really be the solution to the rising price of gas, and if so, at what cost?
E15 is a fuel blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline, as opposed to E10 (the most commonly used gas in the United States), which contains 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline, according to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. E15 is a higher octane than E10, typically marketed as 88 octane as opposed to E10, which is 87.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), most of the gasoline sold in the U.S. contains ethanol, with the most common blend being E10. Due to the dilution of the amount of gasoline per gallon, using ethanol blends will result in a drop in fuel economy, with the EIA saying it could decrease by about 3% for vehicles using E10.
In terms of usability, the EIA notes that all vehicles sold in the U.S. can use E10. Only light-duty vehicles with a model year 2001 or newer can use gasoline blends higher than E10 (such as E15), unless they are marked as a flex-fuel vehicle, which can run on any mix of gas and ethanol up to E85.
There have been some concerns relating to the safety of E15 for some vehicles, with AAA warning drivers in 2013 that E15 fuel may damage some vehicles. At the time, AAA stated that only 12 million of the 240 million light-duty vehicles on the road in 2013 were approved by their manufacturer to use E15.
Since 2013, the number of manufacturers approving the use of E15 in their vehicles has increased. The Renewable Fuels Association (a biofuel industry group) cites a review of 2022 vehicle user manuals, stating that almost all new 2022 vehicles are approved by the manufacturer to use E15. (If you have questions about the use of E15 in your tank, check your owner’s manual, or contact the manufacturer.)
Perhaps the biggest barrier to those looking to fill up with E15 at this point will be finding it. According to the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University, less than 1% of gas stations in the United States were selling E15 as of 2019.
While drivers will get fewer miles per gallon if they opt to use E15 over E10, they will also pay a bit less to fill their tanks. The exact amount of savings at the pump differs from station to station, depending on the rise and fall of the market.
According to the website E85prices.com, which tracks the price of ethanol blend fuel, the average price of E15 nationally as of Sunday is $3.37 as opposed to $3.79 for E10, a difference of 42 cents.
Currently, the top-selling vehicle in the United States is the Ford F150. The 2021 Ford F150 Pickup with 4-wheel-drive using E10 gets a combined city/highway rating of 21 miles per gallon. With a 26-gallon tank, it would cost an average of $98.54 to fill with E10 fuel, as opposed to $87.62 with E15, a difference of $10.92.
Running an average of 21 mpg on E10 fuel, a driver would be able to go about 546 miles on one tank. Accounting for a loss of 3% fuel efficiency with E15 fuel, the combined rating would be 19.74 mpg, averaging a range of about 513 miles on a single tank.
Ethanol in the United States is most often produced from a starch in corn, according to the Department of Energy. Advocates of increased ethanol production cite increased energy independence, a higher octane resulting in increased power, and lower net emissions as advantages of this type of biofuel.
The Department of Energy states that the amount of carbon dioxide released by a vehicle using ethanol is offset by the amount of carbon captured by the plants used to produce the ethanol.
Another benefit listed by the DOE is the job impact. As it is primarily derived from corn in the U.S., rural areas stand to gain the most from increased ethanol production, with the Renewable Fuels Association stating that ethanol production in 2020 accounted for more than 62,000 direct jobs across the country.
But why is there a restriction on when E15 fuel can be sold? Why are there three months out of the year where it cannot be sold?
The reason behind the summer ban on sales of E15 fuel comes down to EPA restrictions on air pollution that negatively impacts the atmosphere’s ozone layer. While the EIA states that ethanol and ethanol-gasoline mixtures burn cleaner and have higher octane levels than pure gasoline, they also acknowledge that these blends have higher evaporative emissions from fuel tanks and dispensing equipment, which contributes to the formation of harmful, ground-level ozone and smog.
Critics of increase E15 production say it would contribute to climate change, resource depletion, and the destruction of critical habitat.
This latest attempt to roll back ethanol sale regulations is not the first. In 2019, in an attempt to follow through on a campaign promise, then-President Donald Trump sought to expand sales of gasoline containing 15% ethanol (E15). In May of that same year, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler took action to roll back the existing regulations blocking the year-round sale of E15.
This change in policy did not last, however, as the action was challenged in court by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a petroleum industry trade group. In the summer of 2021, a federal appeals court overturned the rule change, saying that the EPA had overstepped its authority.
A further attempt (brought by GrowthEnergy, a biofuels industry group) to appeal the court’s decision was made, but in January 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to take up the case, allowing the lower court’s decision to stand.