Corn Ethanol Runs Hard Into ‘Blend Wall’

That strange, de facto alliance of many environmentalists, Big Food and Big Oil scored a victory last week as the Obama administration proposed to reduce the amount of biofuels that are required to be used in the nation’s gasoline supply.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires increasing amounts of biofuels – and right now that means mostly corn-based ethanol – be blended into gasoline. The problem is, U.S. gasoline use has not grown as Congress expected, and even though the Environmental Protection Agency has cleared 15 percent ethanol gasoline (E15) for use with post-2001 cars, trucks and SUVs, most gasoline sold is still at the 10 percent ethanol level.

ethanol biofuels

image via Poet

That’s the “blend wall.”

The EPA, in its announced proposed rule for 2014, said lots of nice things about biofuels, but it basically took the side of Big Oil, which hates biofuels for obvious reasons; Big Food, which blames corn ethanol for driving up the price of feed corn and, thus, food; and environmentalists, who like the idea of advanced biofuels that might truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions but don’t believe for a second that corn ethanol does the trick.

From the EPA announcement:

Nearly all gasoline sold in the U.S. is now “E10,” which is fuel with up to 10 percent ethanol. Production of renewable fuels has been growing rapidly in recent years. At the same time, advances in vehicle fuel economy and other economic factors have pushed gasoline consumption far lower than what was expected when Congress passed the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007. As a result, we are now at the “E10 blend wall,” the point at which the E10 fuel pool is saturated with ethanol. If gasoline demand continues to decline, as currently forecast, continuing growth in the use of ethanol will require greater use of higher ethanol blends such as E15 and E85.

The biofuels industry group the Advanced Ethanol Council focused on the most reviled target, the oil industry.

“What we’re seeing is the oil industry taking one last run at trying to convince administrators of the RFS to relieve the legal obligation on them to blend more biofuel based on clever arguments meant to disguise the fact that oil companies just don’t want to blend more biofuel,” Brooke Coleman, executive director of the AEC said in a statement. “The RFS is designed to bust the oil monopoly. It’s not going to be easy.”

The EPA proposal is now open for public comment before a final rule is written.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • sebastianwrites

    A pretty disgraceful state of affairs…

    If the leading ‘superpower’ in the world cannot take the lead, and a progressive attitude to this crisis – what hope for the rest of?

  • John Thomas Brennan

    Gasification technology is more efficient than distillation.Syngases can then be converted to high quality low emission drop in fuels.Check out Primus and Oberon.Cost competitive without the government money!

  • John Thomas Brennan