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EPA’s New Ethanol Ruling Could Make 42 Million Automobiles Cleaner But Raises Sustainability Issues

United States’ Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has increased the percentage of ethanol blending optional for cars and light-weight trucks made in or after 2007 to 15 percent (E15). This is the first increment in the ethanol blending standard in more than 30 years. Since 1979, automobiles had an option to use only 10 percent blended ethanol (E10) in gasoline.

The EPA noted that tests done by various government and private agencies show that there will not be any impact on the performance of the automobile engines as a result of the increase in blending limit. Even though the ruling will impact only 42 million automobiles or 20 percent of the auto fleet, there would be significant fuel saving and reduction in carbon emissions.

This landmark decision comes after an activist group, Growth Energy, filed a petition with the EPA in March 2009 calling it to issue the E15 ruling to all automobiles build after 2001. Green Energy backed its petition with solid numbers as well. According to the study done by Green Energy, a market-wide option to increase blending to E15 would:

  • create 136,000 new jobs in the clean energy industry;
  • reduce 20 million tonnes of carbon emissions every year;
  • reduce quantity of oil imported every year by 4.38 billion barrels.

The EPA is likely to conduct engine tests in November to decide on the feasibility of expanding the E15 option to cars an trucks built between 2001 and 2006. If the agency gives its approval, the ruling would impact an additional 86 million automobiles accounting for more than half of the total passenger cars and light-duty trucks on the road today.

However, the latest ruling raises some sustainability issues as well. Most of the ethanol produced in the US comes from corn. According to a World Bank report, diversion of corn and other food grains for biofuel production pushed the global food grain prices by 75 percent triggering a global food crisis.

A coalition of agricultural interests said that the new ruling would divert even more corn to the fuel industry and if fully implemented almost 40 percent of the corn produce would be used for ethanol production. Kate McMahon of the Friends of the Earth noted the adverse impacts of biofuels on the environment.

Ethanol results in more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, according to the EPA’s own scientific analysis, which was included in the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) Regulatory Impact Analysis released in February 2010…The production of ethanol also has detrimental effects on human and environmental health.

Large-scale agricultural production of corn for ethanol often involves massive inputs of fertilizer, requires large quantities of water, contributes to soil erosion, and produces deadly run-off of pollution into freshwater sources — as illustrated by the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone.”

There is absolutely no doubt about the sustainability issues related with biofuel production. However, the carbon emissions from the automobile sector cannot be ignored as well. The corn ethanol industry has received $30 billion subsidies in the last 30 years, the US government should now focus on next-generation biofuels.

The EPA should also bring out guidelines regarding the sustainability and source of the biofuels entering the market. More concentrated steps should be taken to ensure that the technology of producing biofuels from waste is made commercially viable at the earliest.

Image: Sweeter Alternative (Flickr)/ Creative Commons

The views presented in the above article are author’s personal views and do not represent those of TERI/TERI University where the author is currently pursuing a Master’s degre

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Mridul currently works as Head-News & Data at Climate Connect Limited, a market research and analytics firm in the renewable energy and carbon markets domain. He earned his Master’s in Technology degree from The Energy & Resources Institute in Renewable Energy Engineering and Management. He also has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering. Mridul has a keen interest in renewable energy sector in India and emerging carbon markets like China and Australia.


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