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EPA's Indecision on Ethanol Blends: Retreating From a Clean Energy Future

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In his first televised address from the Oval Office, President Obama summoned Americans to "a national mission" to end our dependence on oil.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just responded to President Obama's clarion call with a wavering warble.

Given the opportunity to allow blends of up to 15 percent ethanol (E15) in gasoline sold for cars and light trucks, EPA equivocated yet again. In a decision seemingly calculated to confuse gasoline marketers, retailers and consumers, EPA authorized E15 for model year (MY) 2007 and newer vehicles, while announcing that it will continue to study E15's suitability for vehicles from MY 2001 through 2006 and apparently ruling out E15 for vehicles from MY 2000 and earlier.

If you're wondering why E15 is fine for vehicles built since 2007, dubious for vehicles from 2001 through 2006, and denied to vehicles built in 2000 or earlier, EPA offers little explanation. As test after test has demonstrated, E15 is safe and effective in all light-duty vehicles, no matter when they were designed and built. Other nations, including Brazil, with at least as many older vehicles on their roads, allow higher levels of ethanol blends with no discernible damage to their cars and light trucks.

In fact, the internationally recognized automotive-engineering firm, Ricardo, Inc., recently conducted a study for the Renewable Fuels Association that used EPA's own engineering assessment methodology to determine the efficacy of E15 in vehicles MY2000 and older. The report concludes: "... the adoption and use of E15 in the motor vehicle fleet from the studied model years should not adversely affect the vehicles or cause them to perform in a sub-optimal manner when compared with their performance when using the E10 blend that is currently available."

While the scientific basis for EPA's ruling is sketchy, its consequences will be to confuse gasoline marketers, retailers and consumers, while making it more difficult for the nation to transition from imported oil to clean-burning, American-made renewable fuels. As it says in Scripture, "For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?"

EPA's ruling distinguishes among three classes of cars and light trucks -- MY 2000 and older, MY 2001 through 2006, and MY 2007 and later. But most service stations do not have and should not be expected to install two sets of pumps offering a choice between E10 and E15. Nor should the nation's motorists be expected to commit to memory EPA's different requirements for fuel blends for vehicles built within several years of each other. Most likely, in the immediate future, many service stations will simply continue to offer E10.

Because EPA's decision effectively continues the current cap on the amount of ethanol that can be combined with gasoline, commonly called "the Blend Wall," the potential domestic market for ethanol will continue to top out at about 12.5 to 13.5 billion gallons. This "Blend Wall" blocks progress for the environment, the economy, and energy security.

On the environmental front, according to an analysis conducted by the EPA, ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 61 percent, compared to gasoline.

On the economic front, the US ethanol industry supports nearly 400,000 jobs and pays $15.9 billion in federal, state and local taxes.

When it comes to energy security, the production of a record 10.75 billion gallons of ethanol last year replaced 364 million barrels of oil that would otherwise have been imported from unstable nations with unfriendly governments, such as Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran.

Meanwhile, the Blend Wall also stands in the way of developing the next generation of biofuels from feedstocks such as woodchips, corncobs, native grasses, and even garbage. As long as the growth of today's ethanol industry is impeded, it will be more difficult to maintain and expand the companies, the markets, the workforce and the infrastructure that the industry needs to innovate and expand.

When it comes to the nation's clean-energy future, the EPA has sounded a call to retreat, when the nation needs a mandate to move forward. America can and must do better.

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