In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the ethanol lobby has seized on the Trump administration’s decision to prematurely lift a ban on summer sales of E15 gasoline — a move made to thwart potential gas shortages due to the two massive storms — as further proof the policy is outdated and should be scrapped by Congress.
The ban on fuel containing 15 percent ethanol is enacted each summer and is meant to limit ozone, which causes smog during hot months. It typically runs June 1 through Sept. 15 but was lifted earlier amid two major hurricanes.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the ban and broader U.S. ethanol policy, made the move to allow as much gasoline as possible to get to market.
Hurricane Harvey had temporarily shut down some oil production in Texas and off the Gulf Coast, while mass evacuations in Florida as Hurricane Irma approached stoked fears of gas shortages across the state and throughout the region.
The EPA’s E15 waiver applied to 38 states and Washington, D.C.
The agency tried to ensure that the fuel wasn’t used in engines not designed for gasoline with that level of ethanol, an effort to address the common complaint from critics that E15 can lead to misfuelling and vehicle damage.
“The sale of gasoline containing up to 15 percent ethanol (E15) must continue to comply with federal rules, which are designed to minimize the potential for E15 being used in vehicles that are not designed to use this fuel,” the agency said last week as it announced an extension of its waiver, which initially went into effect at the end of August.
But two weeks later there have been few reports of misfuelling, nor does there appear to have been any other negative consequences of the decision.
Ethanol advocates say that’s proof that it’s time for Congress to revisit the policy and scrap the E15 ban for good, finally allowing the fuel to be sold year-round.
The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), the ethanol industry’s leading trade group, said Thursday that the move has helped keep gas prices low by putting more fuel into the marketplace.
“While we are glad EPA responded to the requests of RFA to allow early sales of E15, the summer [E15] restriction remains as an unnecessary and irrational impediment to the rapid expansion of E15 in the marketplace,” said RFA President Bob Dinneen. “The events of the past few weeks have demonstrated that ethanol generally, and E15 specifically, can help offset gasoline shortfalls resulting from major disruptions in our fuel market.”
The push to allow year-round sales of E15 had been gaining steam in Congress earlier this year.
A bipartisan group of senators — each from states that have benefited greatly from the ethanol boom of the past decade — introduced legislation that would permanently lift the ban.
But the bill never even came up for a vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, falling victim to bipartisan opposition of senators of both parties and from a host of outside groups that pressured Congress to kill the bill.
The committee didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday on whether the events of the past two weeks could lead to action on the bill.
While there’s no guarantee of legislative action, ethanol champions seem keenly aware the recent storms — and the early sale of E15 without any negative ramifications across the country — offer a key opportunity to make their case.
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