Higher ethanol gasoline allowed year-round, but not sold in many places

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Although the federal government has approved it, don’t expect to see gas with an ethanol blend of 15% at the pumps anytime soon.

“You just can’t get that infrastructure changed quickly. It’s unlikely many gas stations will change from E10 to E15,” said Wally Tyner, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

The ethanol blend of 10% with 90% percent gasoline is what’s at a vast majority of gas stations across the country.

The Trump administration recently lifted a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banning summer sales of gasoline containing 15% ethanol, partially to help corn farmers sell more product for ethanol production. Historically, that fuel blend has been banned when temperatures are hotter because of the higher evaporative emissions as the gas is dispensed from pumps. Those emissions lead to ozone and smog.

“Ethanol is a very clean-burning fuel. It’s the evaporative emissions that are the issue. That has nothing to do with what comes out of the tailpipe,” Tyner said. “When you put the fuel in your tank and you see those vapors rising from the nozzle during hot weather, that’s what they’re talking about.”

With gas stations now allowed to sell the fuel blend all year, however, it’s unclear how many gas stations will install separate pumps for the 15% ethanol blend or whether consumers would buy it.

“The corn growers and ethanol industry predict that over time it will be E15 everywhere. That’s an open question,” Tyner said.

“Long term, if everything were to go to E15, there would be some higher evaporative emissions,” he said. “The oil industry would have lost some of their market and the ethanol industry would have gained a little market.”

As a result, the move to allow a higher ethanol mix in fuel has resulted in some intriguing political alignments putting environmentalists and the petroleum industry on the same side.

Jennifer Breech Rhoads, president and CEO of the Ohio Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said there are about 4,500 gas stations in Ohio. There are at least 22 stations that offer E15 fuel.

“If there’s a movement in this direction, I see it as a slow move in our state,” she said.

To outfit new underground storage tanks and pumps at a gas station, an operator could be looking at paying as much as $200,000, she said, citing industry estimates. That cost would be prohibitive for smaller operators.

There are also questions about how vehicle engines would handle the E15 blend. While E15 would be cheaper, it would result in lower gas mileage, experts say.

“So if cars aren’t designed to use it, we’re concerned about the problems that could arise as a result. And who’s going to take care of that when that happens?,” Breech Rhoads said. “I know the motorist is going to expect the retailer to bear that responsibility.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of E15 fuel in car models 2001 and newer. However, only some newer car models are warrantied to run on E15.

“The argument is that even if the car is not designed to run on E15, in many cases it can. The warranty remains an open question. However, most cars five years or older are beyond the warranty stage anyway,” Tyner said.

Gas stations owned by the oil industry may not opt to allow a higher ethanol blend because it means using 5% less of the their product at the pump. Also, the 10% blend gives them all of the octane they need, he said.

Findlay-based Marathon Petroleum Company is not impacted by the E15 issue, spokesman Jamal T. Kheiry said.

“Of Speedway’s thousands of stores, we have only a few that sell E15,” Kheiry said. “Speedway determines its fuel offerings based on customer demand, which we are continually evaluating to ensure we are meeting their needs.”

In rural areas where cornfields line the roads, there may be more pressure to install E15 pumps because farmers want to support each other, Tyner said.

Brad D. Reynolds, director of communications for Ohio Corn & Wheat, said the ban getting lifted is “a move to help consumers to save at the pump.”

The move comes at a time when soy bean growers are hurting from tariffs imposed in retaliation for Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods and products. Tense negotiations with Mexico put corn growers on edge  since 17% of the corn in the U.S. is exported. Of that, 25% goes to Mexico, according to U.S. Grains Council. While a 5 percent increase in ethanol concentration in gasoline would increase domestic use of corn, it wouldn’t be enough to offset losses.

“Corn growers are dependent on international trade. …It will help but it’s not going to be the answer to the trade tariffs,” Reynolds said. “We certainly need our trade agreements to be ratified and come into place.”

Tyner said the move to remove the three-month ban is more of a political victory.

“It doesn’t matter how much E15 gets sold because the industry is saying, ‘We got it. We won,’” he said. “And the president is saying, ‘I gave it to you.’ So politically they’ve scored their points.”

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@ByBethBurger