Energy: The EPA Will Put More Ethanol in Your Tank—But It’s Going to Cost You

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It’s not every day that a decision by the federal government can bring together environmental groups, cattle ranchers, the automobile industry and gas station owners, all in anger—but that’s biofuel for you. Today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it was increasing the allowable percentage of corn-based ethanol that could be legally blended into gasoline, raising the limit from 10% to 15%, for cars and light-duty trucks manufactured after 2007. Though auto manufacturers have repeatedly expressed concerns that a higher percentage blend of ethanol might damage engines—ethanol can dislodge debris inside an engine, essentially gumming up the works—the EPA says its tests indicate that’s not a problem for newer cars and trucks, and that increasing the allowable blend was in line with the Administration’s clean energy policies, as agency administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement:

Thorough testing has now shown that E15 does not harm emissions control equipment in newer cars and light trucks. Wherever sound science and the law support steps to allow more home-grown fuels in America’s vehicles, this administration takes those steps.

But car manufacturers aren’t the only groups opposed to increasing the ethanol blend. The livestock industry and food companies unhappy because more ethanol will mean more of American corn production diverted to make fuel, which will mean higher feed prices. (In fact, that’s already happening, as corn futures are rising on the EPA’s decision.) Gas station owners aren’t happy because the change may require them to have two different pumps—one for gasoline with a 10% ethanol blend, another for a 15% blend—and drivers will need to figure out which one to use based on the age of their vehicle. Environmental groups are against the change because it will mean more ethanol—and that could mean more corn, more fertilizer, more dead zones and more deforestation, all for a biofuel that many researchers have said doesn’t have a much smaller carbon footprint than gasoline. (Michael Grunwald’s TIME cover story from 2008 on what he called the “clean energy scam” is still one of the most effective green arguments against ethanol.) Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, also points out that ethanol can worsen air pollution as well:

Burning ethanol can cause toxic air pollutants to be emitted from vehicle tailpipes, especially at higher blend levels like E15. The chemistry is fairly straightforward: ethanol burns hotter than gasoline, causing catalytic converters to break down faster. Cars with broken tailpipe controls are disproportionally responsible for air pollution from vehicles.

So why did the EPA go forward with its decision? Because if you’re going to push a green energy policy in the United States, it really helps if the main beneficiaries are politically powerful farming groups in the Midwest—especially if a midterm election is less than a month away. It was the ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy that initially filed for a waiver to the Clean Air Act back in 2009 in order to raise the legal ethanol blend, setting in motion the EPA’s tests and decision. The group pointed out—accurately—that ethanol producers would hit a ceiling on demand unless the blend was raised to 15%. (It doesn’t hurt that Congress mandated the production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022—most of which will likely be corn ethanol, because more advanced biofuels have yet to reach commercial viability—and that there’s no way to fulfill that requirement without increasing the allowable ethanol blend.)

Growth Energy hailed the EPA’s decision, but noted that bigger changes will be needed if the ethanol industry is going to continue to grow, as the firm’s CEO Tom Buis said in a statement:

Today’s approval of E15 for newer vehicles is the first crack in the blend wall in more than 30 years, and proves what was laid out in Growth Energy’s Green Jobs Waiver – that E15 is a good fuel for American motorists. And while this is an important first step, there are many more steps we can take toward strengthening our national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil, creating jobs here in the United States and improving our environment.

It’s true that corn ethanol is grown and refined right here in the U.S. of A, so if you think national security is the most important factor for fuel, ethanol might have a fighting chance. But as this 2010 study by the Congressional Budget Office shows, corn ethanol is a very expensive way to cut petroleum consumption and carbon emissions. Thanks in part to the $0.45 per gallon blenders tax credit for ethanol, it costs consumers a $1.78 to reduce gasoline consumption by one gallon with ethanol, while it costs $750 to reduce CO2 emissions by one metric ton with ethanol. And that’s not counting the concerns about the impact that vastly increased ethanol production might have on global food prices, on deforestation and dead zones.

It’s ironic that even as the U.S. Senate struggles to do anything to help renewable energy or cut carbon, corn ethanol seems to have very little trouble getting and keeping rather expensive support. But this is about smart politics, not smart policy.