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Trump lifted ethanol restriction in gasoline. Here’s what it means for your car and more

Most gasoline sold comprises 10 percent ethanol, or E10. The higher blend E15 is touted as a cheaper, higher octane alternative. (Associated Press)
By Matt Campbell Kansas City Star

President Donald Trump was in Iowa recently to announce he would lift a key restriction on the year-round, expanded use of ethanol in gasoline.

The setting was not accidental. Most ethanol still is produced from corn and Iowa leads the country in both corn and ethanol production. Iowa also hosts the first presidential primary contest.

Trump promised during his election campaign to lift a key restriction on so-called E15, or a gasoline mixture containing 15 percent ethanol. Most gasoline sold comprises 10 percent ethanol, or E10. The higher blend is touted as a cheaper, higher octane alternative.

But E15 is not currently allowed to be sold in most places during the summer months out of concern it produces more ground-layer ozone or smog, a charge rebutted by ethanol promoters.

The Trump administration directed the Environmental Protection Agency to begin the process to allow year-round sale of E15, with the expectation that could happen by next year.

“Year-round sale of E15 will increase demand for corn, which is obviously good for farmers,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “This has been a years-long fight and is another victory for our farm and rural economies.”

Will it damage my car? Will it affect my mpg.?

There are concerns that higher ethanol content in gas could damage engines and void auto warranties. The EPA has approved E15 for all vehicles manufactured since 2001, and the American Coalition for Ethanol said E15 is “safe to use in 90 percent of all vehicles on the road today.”

But you should still check the owner’s manual.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says the energy content of ethanol is about a third less than pure gasoline, which means poorer mileage. But there are variables.

“In general, vehicle fuel economy may decrease by about 3 percent when using E10 relative to gasoline that does not contain fuel ethanol,” the agency said. That means E15 fuel would generally decrease mileage another 1.5 percent.

Will all gas stations carry E15 fuel?

No. It is currently available at more than 1,400 stations in about 30 states. But there are more than 114,000 gas stations in the country. The Department of Agriculture has a grant program to help stations equip themselves to carry the higher blend.

But it’s a market-driven decision. Promoters say the ability to sell E15 year-round – and not have to change pumps and labels twice a year – would give station owners more of an incentive to offer it.

Who is for and who is against year-round E15?

Farmers, who are feeling tariff and trade-war effects on their exports, are really happy about the new directive.

“The Missouri Corn Growers Association supports any efforts to build corn demand,” association President Mark Scott said in a statement.

Many elected officials are pleased, as well.

“This is great, great news for us,” U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, a Republican from Great Bend., Kansas, told The Wichita Eagle. “We have 12 ethanol plants (in Kansas). They impact some 5,000 jobs, so this is a big part of the economies and in so many of those communities, these ethanol plants are the leading employers in town.”

The Renewable Fuels Association said lifting the E15 restriction “will save consumers money and reduce emissions, enhance competition, and provide a boost to the farm economy.”

Growth Energy, which calls itself America’s Ethanol Supporters, said year-round E15 sales would “drive demand for two (more) billion bushels of American corn.”

The oil industry, facing a decline in refinery output with more ethanol, is less than pleased.

“I can’t overstate how disappointed we are with this decision by the president,” Chet Thompson, president of American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, told The Hill about Trump’s E15 directive.

A group called the Clean Air Task Force, not normally associated with the oil industry, endorsed a failed effort in 2013 to eliminate altogether “the corn ethanol mandate (that) is accelerating climate change by causing lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions to increase relative to gasoline.”

A 2016 University of Michigan study said that crops used for biofuel absorb only 37 percent of the greenhouse gas that they release when they are burnt as fuel. Growing more crops for fuel actually contributes to the climate problem, the study said.

Others, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, say creating a demand for more ethanol encourages farmers to replace other crops with corn, adding to price pressures on other commodities, and encourages the plowing of more wild lands into crop fields. It also increases the demand for water and the application of fertilizers that contribute to algae blooms and other problems downstream.

What does the EPA think?

In June, in a required report to Congress, the agency sounded less than enthusiastic. It said “biofuel production associated with large-scale cultivation of corn and soybeans contributes to the adverse environmental and resource conservation impacts of the type listed in EISA Section 204,” referring to the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

But the report cautioned that the agency did not attempt to “evaluate the net effects of displacing petroleum or other energy sources with biofuels” and it recommended more research.

Meanwhile, the Renewable Fuel Standard, enacted in 2005 to reduce greenhouse gasses and encourage alternative fuels, remains on the books. It continues to set escalating requirements for the volume of renewable material in gas.

Can the EPA act on its own to lift the E15 restriction?

No, according to the Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit that studies government regulation on energy markets. It says the EPA does not have the authority to lift the E15 restriction, which would essentially require a waiver from the Clean Air Act.

“Only Congress can do so by changing the law,” the institute said.

Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said the oil industry agrees and “plans to aggressively pursue all available legal remedies against this waiver.”