DES MOINES— Renewable fuels lobbyists and Midwestern politicians hope that President Joe Biden’s visit to an ethanol refinery near a small Iowa town Tuesday means good news for ethanol companies — and corn farmers.
Biden’s visit comes as drivers around the country face high fuel prices, a product of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Elected leaders in states like Iowa have called for Biden to at least temporarily allow the summertime sale nationwide of E15, a fuel with a higher blend of ethanol.
So what is E15, really?
The simple answer is, fuel with more corn in it.
Most US drivers pump what is known as E10, a fuel blend that contains 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol. Ethanol is a clear alcohol that derives from a manufacturing process that starts with biomass — overwhelmingly, corn starch.
E15 is a blend of the fuel that relies on a larger amount of ethanol. While most people refer to E15 as a blend with 15% ethanol, the US Department of Energy defines E15 as a blend with ethanol amounts as low as 10.5%.
Why is E15 banned during the summer?
According to Popular Science, higher blends of ethanol make fuel more volatile. The emissions are more likely to form ozone, or smog, that can make breathing more difficult — especially with people with conditions like asthma.
Sunlight drives the reaction that creates smog. And, as a result, the US Clean Air Act bans the sale of E15 from June to Sept. 15 in some states.
However, renewable fuels lobbyists have pointed to research that shows E15 is less volatile than E10arguing that the blend is safe during the summer.
Then-President Donald Trump announced in 2018 that his administration would waive the summertime ban on E15, to move to federal appeals court later overturned. The US Supreme Court declined to consider the case.
Is E15 a solution for expensive gas?
The answer is murky.
The price of E15 is lower than E10 at the pump. As of April 8, a gallon of E15 cost about 2.8% less than a gallon of E10, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights.
But at the same time, a gallon of E15 doesn’t carry a driver as far as a gallon of E10, with the US Department of Energy saying the higher blend has about one-third less energy.
Then there is the factor of food. Ethanol prices may rise this year as corn prices remain strong. According to the Wall Street Journal, the commodity’s price has risen 30% so far in 2022. The price may continue to increase as the global supply remains low amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world’s fourth-biggest corn producer.
In fact, according to Reuters, the Biden administration considered in early March whether to grant waivers for gasoline refineries to stop adding ethanol to their fuel. The outlet reported that the president’s team worried that ethanol mandates would tighten demand for the US corn too much, increasing food prices.
According to the Department of Agriculture, about a third of US corn production goes toward ethanol. Just a little more than that — 38% — goes to “feed and residual use.”
Renewable Fuels Association President Geoff Cooper told the Wall Street Journal that the amount of corn needed to make more E15 this summer would be “minuscule.”
“That assessment should be taken with a grain of salt,” the Journal’s Jinjoo Lee wrote in response. “And in today’s world of shortages, even implied impacts on food should be enough to make E15 an unappetizing option.”
Is E15 safe to use in your car?
E15 is approved for use in 2001 and newer cars and trucks, and older flex-fuel vehicles.
The US Department of Energy says E15 should not be used in:
- Vehicles with heavy-duty engines, such as school buses and delivery trucks.
- Off-road vehicles, snowmobiles and boats.
- Chain saws and gasoline lawn mowers.
E15, usually dispensed from pumps with blue labels, should not be confused with E85, which contains up to 85% ethanol. It’s for use only in flex-fuel vehicles, with engines that can withstand that corrosive effects of a high blend of alcohol
Why does E15 matter so much in Iowa?
An E15 blend requires more ethanol. And more ethanol requires more corn. Iowa is the top US producer of corn. It and No. 2 corn grower Illinois produces about one-third of the country’s crop every yearaccording to the US Agriculture Department.
Companies that build ethanol plants want to be close to where the commodity grows, allowing them to save money on costs like transportation. As a result, according to a 2018 US Energy Information Administration report, Iowa was by far the biggest ethanol producer in the country. Factories in the state pumped out about 102 million barrels of ethanol a year at the time — about 28% of the country’s total production.
However, people drove less after the COVID-19 pandemic led to mass shutdowns in March 2020. The fuel industry overall suffered, and the ethanol business was not immune.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Iowans employed in ethanol manufacturing dropped to about 1,800 in 2020, a 10% drop from two years earlier.
Meanwhile, the number of ethanol plants in the state has steadily declined, from 49 in 2011 to 37 in 2020.
A survey of gas station companies by the Fuels Institute found that some executives did not want to spend an estimated $300,000 per 10-pump station to add equipment to handle E15 blends. The Institute believed that, in part, companies didn’t want to spend for the blends when they knew they couldn’t sell them during the summer.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism