It is important to all of us that Congress takes action this year to modify the "ethanol mandate" which requires Americans to use a specified amount of ethanol in the gasoline for cars and trucks.
Several years ago Congress set the mandated amount of ethanol too high and this is causing increasing problems. The ethanol mandate is part of the Renewable Fuel Standard that was created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and expanded by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. These Acts set mandated amounts and timetables for biofuels to be added into the nation's transportation fuel supply.
The motivation behind the legislation was to force the use of ethanol and other biofuels in order to achieve the desired benefits of reduced vehicle emissions, reduced greenhouse gas generation, and reduced importation of oil. It has been more than five years since this legislation was passed and the United States Environmental Protection Agency promulgated the Renewable Fuel Standard as prescribed by the legislation. We now have a wealth of actual implementation experience. In many respects the Renewable Fuel Standard has not worked out as anticipated. The expected benefits have not been as great as anticipated and several unexpected consequences and implementation challenges have emerged. It is time to make some changes in the Renewable Fuel Standard, and EPA cannot make the changes that are needed until Congress acts with new legislation.
The legislation specified that an ever increasing amount of renewable fuel be blended with gasoline. The amount required to be blended in 2008 was 9 billion gallons and this increases to 36 billion gallons in 2022. There are different sources of renewable fuels, but almost all of the renewable fuel available today is ethanol, derived by fermentation of corn. It was originally anticipated that several advanced alternative sources of renewable fuels would be developed, but the technology for alternatives has developed slower than anticipated. The result is that 13.8 billion gallons of corn ethanol will be required in 2013 and by 2015 at least 15.0 billion gallons will be mandated.
The production of this much ethanol from corn now consumes 40 percent of the nation's corn crop, which has had the effect of pushing up food prices for everyone. People in many countries that relied on American corn as basic food have been priced out and are suffering. In some Midwestern states, as much as 5 percent of the pasture land is being turned into cropland each year driven mostly by the ever increasing size of the ethanol mandate. So much corn being used for fuel production causes problems.
The United States is also starting to experience a problem in the implementation of the program. Ethanol is normally blended with gasoline at a ratio of up to 10 percent ethanol to gasoline. This blend ratio fuel works satisfactorily in most engines. In 2007, the United States was using 142 billion gallons of gasoline annually and it was projected this would increase to 150 billion gallons by 2012. But, improving fuel economy and conservation has resulted in the use of only 134 billion gallons of gasoline in 2012. In order to blend the mandated 15.0 billion gallons of ethanol it will be necessary to start to sell some gasoline with an ethanol to gasoline ratio of 15 percent. However, it has been determined that a 15 percent blend will likely cause damage to vehicles older than 2001 (more than 30 percent of the nation's fleet) as well as motorcycles, heavy duty vehicles, boats, off-road vehicles like snowmobiles, and small engine equipment like lawn mowers and chain saws.
This means that gasoline stations will have to add another storage tank and pump in order to provide a 15 percent blend for newer passenger vehicles and a 10 percent blend for all the other engines not suited for the high blend level. The cost to accomplish this will be major. Also, misfueling must be prevented, and no good ideas of how to prevent misfueling have been established.
The only practical way to overcome the negative impacts not originally anticipated when Congress passed the previous legislation in 2007 is for Congress to immediately pass new legislation establishing a reasonable and practical level for use of renewable fuels. Probably new advanced processes for producing renewable fuels will be developed in the future, and we should encourage this development and use these new fuels when they become available. However, the current "ethanol mandate" should be changed immediately.
Lyons is en engineering professor at West Virginia University.