Ethanol Blather Courtesy of the Epa and the Financial Times

Michael Giberson

On Friday, the EPA announced it now believes it is safe to use fuels made with up to 15 percent ethanol in cars, SUVs and light-duty trucks manufactured between 2001 and 2006.  EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said, “Whenever sound science and the law support steps to allow more home-grown fuels in America’s vehicles, this administration takes those steps.” It is, as the Houston Chronicle reported, “a victory for ethanol advocates, including manufacturers, corn farmers and their supporters on Capitol Hill.”

“Sound science and the law?” The EPA action was to grant a waiver on a Clean Air Act-based limitation on selling gasoline with more than 10 percent ethanol for the vehicle classes mentioned. While the Clean Air Act also allows for waivers to be granted, I’d say that the law is no more than neutral on the matter. The essence of  “sound science” is open inquiry, but it looks like the EPA pursued a rather selective course of study in order to grant this favor to the ethanol industry. From the press release it looks like all that the EPA considered was whether or not use of higher-content ethanol blends would damage emissions control systems. I think a broader inquiry is needed before concluding sound science supports steps to allow more “home-grown fuels.”

The Financial Times Energy Source blog quoted Jackson on “sound science and the law” and followed with quotes from sundry other lobbyists (a “move in the right direction,” “will further increase volatility in food markets,” all mandates “should be repealed,” “takes food out of the mouths of American consumers”). A somewhat limited range of reporting perhaps, but besides lobbyists pro and con who are you going to get to talk about an EPA announcement that comes out on a Friday?

Which is fine except that the FT blogger added, “What nobody is touching on, however, is that the US produces so much ethanol that it has been exporting it.” (The linked story in the FT reports, producers are making so much they are “running out of places to put this ethanol.”) And, the blogger continues, “Raising the content of ethanol in fuels at home will at least put more of the ethanol produced in the US in this country’s vehicles. … if we are going to produce ethanol, it does seem wrongheaded that this country is giving tax credits for the production of a biofuel that is shipped abroad to lower emissions elsewhere.”

Some modest amount of ethanol is used in gasoline as an oxygenate, allowing the gasoline to burn more cleanly (and so providing some local air quality benefits), but the primary alleged public policy reason to further subsidize and mandate use of ethanol is due to its supposed carbon neutrality. Since greenhouse gas accumulations are no respecters of national boundaries, it doesn’t really matter where in the world the ethanol gets burned for us to (allegedly) gain this (supposed) benefit.

I say, let’s let ethanol supporters ship as much as possible overseas. At least then my own vehicle isn’t at risk.

NOTE: Robert Rapier also comments on the decision, adding some informed speculation on how the politics are likely to play out. (Hint: “the ethanol industry usually gets what they wants.”)