In April 2022, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will use its emergency authority to allow sales of gasoline blended with 15% ethanol in summer 2022. The blend is also known as E15, or Unleaded 88, because of its 88 octane rating.
For those looking to better understand E15, here’s what you need to know:
How did we get here?
Ethanol is a fuel typically derived from field corn in the U.S.
Since the 1970s, refineries have blended petroleum gasoline with ethanol to reduce dependence on foreign oil, increase octane and reduce harmful emissions by replacing toxic aromatic compounds that are known or suspected carcinogens with cleaner burning ethanol. Ethanol also reduces emissions of criteria pollutants like carbon monoxide and has lower carbon emissions compared to gasoline.
When Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990, it codified limits on the volatility of fuels during the summer, to reduce evaporative emissions. Why is the Clean Air Act relevant to this topic you ask?
E10, which is gasoline blended with up to 10% ethanol, was just above the allowable threshold for volatility of 9 pounds per square inch. But because of the many emissions benefits of E10, the EPA allowed a narrow exemption in 1990 so the fuel can be sold year-round. Today’s corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions, on average, 42%-52% compared to gasoline. This has been documented by the U.S. Department of Energy, Harvard University, MIT, Tufts, the California Air Resources Board, USDA and others. Currently, almost all gasoline sold in the U.S. is blended with up to 10% ethanol.
In 1990, E15 wasn’t yet on the market as a fuel. Therefore, E15 was not part of the conversation when the Clean Air Act was amended at that time. By 2011, EPA had approved the use of E15 in all vehicles of model year 2001 and newer.
Today, E15 is available at 2,300 stations nationwide.
Ensuring E15 parity
According to researchers, the volatility of E15 is equal to or less than E10, meaning E15 is no more likely than E10 — which has been allowed year-round since 1990 — to contribute to smog. Additionally, E15 provides even greater tailpipe emissions reductions than E10.
Recognizing this, in 2018, the Trump administration moved to use its rule-making authority to allow for year-round E15 sales. This change went into effect for the first time in 2019.
But in response to a challenge by oil interests, in July 2021, a federal appeals court stuck with the narrow interpretation of the waiver law. Namely, the court said that because E10 is the only fuel named in the waiver, other ethanol blends aren’t eligible for the summer exemption. The ruling had nothing to do with the quality, safety and environmental benefits of E15 as a fuel.
The court decision in the case filed by oil interests meant that sales of E15 would no longer be allowed in the summer months starting in 2022. Knowing that this would stop momentum when it comes to sales of cleaner-burning E15, corn farmers and ethanol supporters in Missouri and nationally have been working hard to encourage the to issue an emergency waiver for 2022 to allow E15 sales this summer, while efforts to find a long-term solution continue through the Next Generation Fuels Act.
In April 2022, President Biden announced the administration will use its existing emergency authority to allow E15 to continue to be sold this summer. Following this announcement, the benefits of ethanol-blended fuels have been front and center. Read on as we set the record straight on some of the more common inaccuracies often repeated.
Addressing E15 myths
Myth: But more ethanol in gas tanks this summer could mean more smog. … Using it actually creates more ground-level air pollution.
Fact: Ground-level ozone, known as smog, is caused when volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxide combine with sunlight. Fuels can contribute to smog by being burned (tailpipe emissions) or evaporating. The tailpipe emissions from ethanol-blended fuels are less than regular gasoline. When it comes to evaporative emissions, E15 is less than or equal to standard gasoline. So, using E15 in the summer wouldn’t create additional smog.
Myth: The Biden administration’s action will require consumers to use E15.
Fact: The action only allows consumers to have uninterrupted access to it. It doesn’t require that they use it. Nor does it require stations to offer it.
Myth: This action will have a negligible effect on consumers in Missouri.
Fact: E15 is offered at nearly 70 stations in the state, making it an important part of our fueling supply. By ensuring year-round sales for 2022, this will ensure consumers can continue to have uninterrupted access to this cleaner-burning, lower-cost fuel at a time when climate-related issues and inflation are of great concern to many Missourians.
Myth: E15 was legal year-round until 2011, when the EPA moved to ban it in the summer.
Fact: E15 wasn’t allowed year-round until 2019. (E15 wasn’t even sold before 2011, the year it received approval by the EPA for widespread use.)
Myth: Biden’s announcement will lead to an increase in food prices.
Fact: Average corn yields have increased by more than 25 bushels per acre since 2007, allowing farmers to grow more corn on less land and with fewer resources. This productivity growth allows farmers to meet demand across all uses of corn with significant bushels to spare.
Myth: Ethanol will damage my engine.
Fact: Unleaded 88, or E15 fuel, is approved for use in all model year 2001 and newer vehicles by the EPA. Unleaded 88 is the most tested fuel in history without any fuel performance issues. Before Unleaded 88 began being sold at retail locations, it was tested for more than 6 million miles using 86 vehicles from various manufacturers, makes, models and years. Automakers also provide full warranty coverage for E15 for more than 93%of vehicles on the road today.
Since 2011, NASCAR has used E15 to power its race cars.
Myth: Ethanol is more carbon intensive than gasoline.
Fact: When all supply chain emissions are properly evaluated on a lifecycle basis, today’s average corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 42-52 percent compared to gasoline. This has been documented by the U. S. Department of Energy, Harvard University, MIT, Tufts, the California Air Resources Board, USDA and others.