Lawmakers seek to salvage summer E15 fuel

By: - January 14, 2022 3:03 pm
biofuel gasoline gas pump ethanol fuel

Fuel pumps at a gas station. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa’s two U.S. senators hope to codify a waiver into federal law that would allow gasoline fuels that are 15% ethanol to be sold during the summer.

“I hope Congress can act to fix this issue,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, said this week. “It makes no sense for a quirk of environmental regulation to prevent this E15 from being sold during the summer.”

Vehicle fuels have stricter regulations in the warm summer months in most states to help prevent them from turning to vapor and polluting the air. Fuels that are 10% and 15% ethanol do not meet those summer standards, but the 1990 Clean Air Act made an exception for 10% blends in order to promote less-polluting fuels. The 15% blends were not as common at the time.

“It’s a great fuel choice for consumers,” said Grant Menke, director of market development for the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “It would be great if we waved a magic wand and the entire country switched from E10 to E15.”

He said such a switch would create a demand for billions of additional gallons of ethanol each year and a higher demand for the corn from which it’s made.

E10 is the most common fuel sold in Iowa, and fueling stations often simply refer to it as an ethanol blend. E15 is clearly labeled and has an octane rating of 88, which is slightly higher than E10’s 87.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2019 decided that the two blends were similar enough for E15 to get the same waiver from summer fuel volatility requirements as E10. But that rule was upended in July when a federal appeals court agreed with a trade association that represents oil refiners that the EPA overstepped its authority. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the lower court’s decision, effectively ending summer sales of E15 in most states.

“Coupled with inaction by Congress to pursue a legislative fix, (Monday’s) decision by the Supreme Court to not review the E15 decision, while disappointing, underlines the need for states like Iowa to act to ensure E15 can be sold all year,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “It is now clear that no timely federal solution is coming.”

Menke said Midwestern governors, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, are exploring whether the EPA can grant waivers to individual states to allow summer E15. Reynolds also said this week in her Condition of the State address that boosting sales of fuels with higher ethanol concentrations is one of her top priorities this legislative session.

Summer fuel restrictions in Iowa go from June 1 to Sept. 15.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, said E15 has support from both sides of the political aisle.

“This is a very bipartisan issue,” she told Iowa Capital Dispatch this week. “A number of us are working on legislation that would allow E15 year round. … We want to take it through Congress — that way it is established in law.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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