Like it or Not, E15 Ethanol Blends Are Coming This Summer

In testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee Friday, EPA chief Lisa Jackson said her agency expects to complete the final work necessary to clear the way for E15 blended ethanol to begin hitting pumps nationwide in the next few months. By summer, the 15 percent gasoline-ethanol mix is expected to begin showing up at gas stations—though it’s unclear how many retailers will initially sell it alongside E10, and how many will choose simply offer one or the other during the transition.

This spring, the EPA will issue final rules on labeling for the blend, which is expected to eventually replace the current 10 percent mixture sold at most gas stations throughout the United States. An effective labeling scheme is essential to the rollout because it protects retailers from liability stemming from E15′s potential to damage certain vehicles and gas-powered appliances. Many older cars and other vehicles ranging from boats to lawnmowers have been shown to undergo damage from blended gasoline, and as the portion of ethanol in that gas goes up, critics say the higher burning point of the fuel will be more and more taxing on carburetors.

All cars manufactured after 2001 are designed to withstand the extra heat, and it’s estimated that at nearly three-quarters of the vehicles on American roads—representing about 85 percent of total gas consumption—will have no trouble handling the higher blend.

Another point of contention surrounding the jump to E15 is the potential impact that increased demand for the corn ethanol is made from could have on already-rising food prices. Corn futures have more than doubled in the past year, and 40 percent of domestic crops are already expected to be used for ethanol in 2011. As production of the fuel increases to meet new demand from E15, the prices of corn and the thousands of foods that are derived from it, could rise further.

The ethanol industry counters that E15 will immediately help to bring down costs for consumers at the pump, and that the link between biofuels and rising food costs is overstated.

Congressional Budget-Slash Fever Could Threaten Subsidies

Although ethanol has come under fire over everything from its carbon footprint to carburetor damage, the fuel has always enjoyed strong support in Washington, where industry groups like the Renewable Fuels Association and Growth Energy have lobbied heavily to secure billions of dollars each year in federal subsidies.

But in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections, a new class of cut-happy congressmen and born-again budget hawks have been gunning for previously-sacred cows. And at $6 billion per year in blender’s credits alone, ethanol represents a mighty big cow.

In February, representatives on both sides of the aisle introduced bills either to block the EPA from approving E15 or end tax subsidies beneficial to the industry. In a scathing editorial yesterday, the Baltimore Sun put it this way:

“Politicians who stand up for this foolish federal subsidy should keep in mind that while they may make a few friends among farmers, they’ll also draw the wrath of everyone from tea party activists to tree-hugging liberals.”

Still, with E15 poised to make its debut and no anti-ethanol measures making any clear headway in Congress, it’s looking more and more like the fuel won’t be disappearing from your local gas station—or the federal budget—anytime soon.