U.S. Biofuels & Ethanol Mandate: More Vulnerable Than Ever Now?

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Big square baler harvesting wheat straw for production of cellulosic ethanol

Big square baler harvesting wheat straw for production of cellulosic ethanol

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Since 2007, U.S. fuel producers have been required by law to include more and more ethanol and other biofuels in their blends.

Now, Pike Research suggests, the biofuels mandate enacted as part of the 2007 U.S. Energy Act may be vulnerable to renewed political pressure.

Pike notes that the drawbacks of conventionally produced biofuels--based on corn in the U.S. and rapeseed in Europe--are becoming more apparent at the same time that anticipated production of advanced biofuels has failed to materialize.

"Wish" not science

In January, a Federal appeals court tossed out the EPA's "cellulosic" ethanol requirement, saying it was based on a "wish" rather than factors fuel refiners could actually control.

The EPA had upheld its mandate last November despite a request from several parties that it be suspended.

So-called ellulosic biofuel is made from wood chips or the inedible parts of plants, including corncobs. In 2011, refiners had been required to blend 6.6 million gallons into gasoline and diesel vehicle fuels--although none was available on the market--and the 2012 quota rose to 8.65 million gallons.

Producers and refiners of fuels had already failed to meet the 2011 mandate--and paid $7 million in fines--due to lack of supplies.

Banning E15?

Now two bills recently introduced into Congress seek to delay or ban altogether the sale of E15 gasoline, which contains 15 percent ethanol rather than the 10-percent maximum standard since 1978.

As Hemmings Motor News noted last week, House Bill 875 requires that sales of E15 be suspended for at least 18 months while more testing is done of its effects on older cars and the large variety of small combustion engines that were never designed to accommodate that fuel.

Senate Bill 344 simply suspends the sale of E15 gasoline altogether.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that carries out provisions of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act passed by Congress mandates that 36 billion gallons of ethanol to be used to fuel U.S. by 2022. That's more than three times the 11.1 billion gallons that were used in 2010.

But in December 2011, in the first sign of waning support for ethanol--long a main plank of the agriculture lobby--Congress ended subsidies for ethanol production that had been in place since 1980, along with import tariffs on imported ethanol.

The decline in support for ethanol, including the fight against E15, may signal a sea change in the political winds for the gasoline additive.

2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI test car running on Solazyme algae-derived diesel fuel

2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI test car running on Solazyme algae-derived diesel fuel

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Biodiesel ascendant?

On the other hand, tests are now underway on sustainable diesel fuel--which is, admittedly, at a much earlier stage than the millions of gallons of ethanol being produced at  multiple operating U.S. refineries today.

Those include tests of algae-based biodiesel in Volkswagen TDI diesel cars, and the first commercial jet route using biofuel on a regular basis.

What do you think?

Is this just a tempest in a teapot: political posturing that won't end up affecting the slow rollout of E15 and other biofuels?

Or are we heading toward a tipping point where the mandates that specify increasing volumes of biofuels to be blended into our national fuel supply might actually fall?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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Comments (12)
  1. I invite all to research the website of www.algenol.com - they claim the ability to produce ethanol from algae, using ocean water and sunlight, for about $1.00/gallon. Algenol also has some contracts with Valero, one of USA largest ethanol producers. It is a tiny-tot that I expect to see go public in the near future - they also have gotten $$$$$ for further R&D from Reliance Industries of India

  2. I have used ETH blends since they first became available {on a limited basis for Octane #s} 30 years ago. I remain a supporter of biofuels. However, I do think that the consumer should have a choice and NOT a mandate.

  3. When the use of E10-15 or E85 lowers miles per gallon, you burn more fuel, so how does the use offset any gains, when its a negative? I'm all for the use of Biodiesel, but 100% against adding more ethanol. It has already destroyed two of my garden engines, and wrecked havoc with older fuel systems on others.

  4. The use of Ethanol blends has a negative effect on small air cooled engines, I know because I work on them and see the damage. I often wonder if this is one of the "Shovel Ready" jobs that were promised. Some of you may not know about Gasahol, it's the same as what is being pushed now.

  5. It they are so Hell Bent on using Ethanol then mandate Auto Mfrs. design 1 new model each that will run properly using E15 or more. Stop shoving it down the throats of broke Americans who struggle to keep our cars running as we go another year with a pay freeze. This all or nothing attitude is just plain stupid.

  6. I think it is great that Brazil uses a minimum of 20-25 percent ethanol in their gasoline and upto 100 percent ethanol - they are not dependent on foreign oil and keep more money in their local economy rather than send dollars overseas. The U.S. now produces and uses more ethonal than we import oil from Saudi Arabia. If Brazil can do it we can too.
    Here is a great YouTube of more great facts about our locally produced ethanol and its benefits: http://www.ethanolrfa.org/pages/40-facts-video-sources?utm_medium=email&utm_source=chooseethanol&utm_content=4+-+httpethanolrfaorgWatch40Facts&utm_campaign=20130227video&source=20130227video

  7. @Lee: Note, however, that Brazil produces its ethanol using sugarcane as a feedstock. This is twice as efficient (at about 600 gallons per acre) as the U.S. production using subsidized corn (at 300 gallons per acre). Brazilian ethanol thus requires half the agricultural land for the same output.

  8. This got started over trying to create independency over foreign oil, with advanced drilling technologies we are poised to become net exporters of oil. Has anyone actually done a study to determine what the net gain in fuel over what is used to produce it? If you weigh in the fact we are using almost two parts of fuel does this even make any sense. Natural gas is more abundant, cheaper, cleaner burning and reduces oil usage at a faster rate. Waste Management is converting it's fleet of trucks to natural gas. They save $19,000 a year per truck. It's clearly time to remove the mandates and allow the free market to operate freely. The impact corn ethanol has on food prices and global food supplies makes you wonder why it's even allowed.

  9. I'm with you Chuck. Making ethanol to burn in internal combustion engines (ICEs) is a totally flawed plan from the start when you consider that 75% or more of the ethanol burned is just wasted as heat in the hopelessly inefficient internal combustion engine. I agree NG is better, but not by much, and the US has lots of it - at the moment. The resurgence of oil 'drilling' in the US is just a Big Oil swan song and an unhelpful distraction. I just can't see any other realistic means of making machines work in a way that is as close to sustainable as we are likely to get for the next 50 years or more, other than by using electricity as the energy carrier. It is far more efficient - by a factor of 3 to 5 - than an ICE ever will be. MW

  10. Martin thanks for the reply. I hope your wrong on Big Oil. I am hearing reports that the new drilling is uncovering more oil in more places than North Dakota, it only makes you wonder how much oil this technology could unlock in other parts of the world. Without politics and non deserved media support corn ethanol should not exist. Cellulosic ethanol has been a disaster when you look at the amounts produced for the amounts invested in plants. The penalties paid by gas refineries is just levied to the consumer as a form of tax the government collects at our cost. It's time to quit playing politics and do what's right for the country. Ultimately Barrack makes the decision and I think he's absolutely clueless.

  11. Alternative Fuels are good when they are competitive in the market place. New technologies have uncovered enormous resources of oil right here in the Unitede States. Oil independence is just around the corner if the politicians will embrace. Just think what would happen with the economy if gasoline and diesel was reduced by $1.00/gal. Those extra dollars will be spent by consumers which will have a compounding effect on the quality of life for all americans. Alternative fuel has its place, but it should not be mandeated like Obama Care.

  12. BTU's in a gallon of Ethanol 76000... BTU's in gasoline 116,090... BTU's in Diesel Fuel 128,450... This is simple math! Big oil has the government mandate 10-15% up to 85% Ethanol per gallon... Making us buy more fuel in the process, we were told it was going to make fuel more affordable, cleaner, and more available, and lower our dependency on foreign oil, but like all things lobbied in DC, corn based food products have greatly increased in price, the fuel costs are higher because ethanol costs more to produce, and oil companies are making more profit than ever. They are the problem not the solution. Americans drive torque and buy HP, buy a diesel or diesel hybrid if you're really worried about the world. Tell Uncle Sam's Oil to F-off!

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