An Environmental and Political Debate Loom Over a Policy Designed for Energy Independence

Aaron Edelstein


Kevin Saler owns a Sunoco station in Newton, Massachusetts, and runs a good business, offering the only full service station in the area. He’s confused though, about the growing amount of ethanol found in the fuel supply.



“It’s a mess. It leaks way more than gasoline and so you have to make sure the seals are always 100% or else it just evaporates. It’s also just making the fuel less energy dense. You get around 33% less energy from a gallon of ethanol than you do from gas, so this stuff basically just makes everything less efficient,” Saler said in late November. It’s something anyone who pumps up gas sees, but probably doesn’t notice, the sticker that says that the gasoline your pumping is up to 10% ethanol, but no one is sure about why there’s ethanol in our fuel supply, or even how it got there.

Ethanol, which is fermented organic material is most often made from corn, wood, and sugarcane, and has been fueling cars since the Model T, which could run on gasoline or ethanol because gas was hard to come by and farmers could make ethanol on the cheap. Once cars became commonplace and gas became easily accessed, ethanol fell into the background until World War II, when there were gas shortages and ethanol because the fuel of choice. It has been in our fuel supply in some capacity since then, and at an increasing rate since 2005.

After 9/11, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007. The idea was simple enough, we were getting most of our energy needs from the middle east, a place with a lot of unrest, and one which we didn’t particularly trust just 6 years following 9/11. As part of this act, the Renewable Fuel Standard came into existence.  The RFS mandates that a certain increasing amount of ethanol be blended into the nation’s fuel supply every year. Congress put the Environmental Protection Agency in charge of this, giving them the authority to alter the mandated levels based on production levels.

There are some important things to note about blending ethanol into the fuel supply. Ford’s first Model T, which could run either fuel, would be known as a Flex Fuel car today. These vehicles can run up to 85% ethanol, known as E85. Non E85 cars can safely run up to 10% ethanol, and some newer ones can run up to 15%, so there are real limits to the amount of ethanol that can be safely mixed into the fuel supply without putting cars all over the country at risk of engine issues.

The EPA says that cars made after 2001 can safely run E15 fuel, but the car manufacturers and the American Automobile Association say differently. Many automakers have stated that they will not honor the warranty on cars being filled with E15, even on some made after 2001. When asked for comment on this, a spokesman for AAA  pointed to a statement by AAA President Marshall Doney, saying that “AAA is pleased to see the EPA acknowledge that there are real-world constraints that limit the amount of ethanol that can be safely blended into the fuel supply. Official recognition of the ‘blend wall’ may help protect consumers from using E15 gasoline in vehicles not designed for its use.”

Kelly Donnaly, who drives a 2012 Camry hybrid, never took much notice to the warning on her fuel cap that says to use only E10 fuel until she was moving to Washington over the summer and driving through the midwest on her way from Oregon.

“There’s not really any if the E15 or 85 stuff out in Portland, so I never really paid attention to it, and then I almost messed the car up in Iowa. I was filling the car up at this station and there were two hoses and I thought they were the same so I grabbed the one that was apparently E15. Luckily the attendant caught it and knew the Camry’s cant take it,” Donnaly explained.


Fuel filler cap 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid

Photo By Aaron Edelstein

Donnaly isn’t wrong, E15 is primarily sold in the midwest, the same area it’s produced, and not sold very many other places. The EPA, despite mandating that these biofuels be mixed into the fuel supply, hasn’t been able to get car manufacturers to produce cars that run these fuels, and the reasons are quite simple. Ethanol burns faster, which could be great if you’re trying to accelerate, but isn’t good for the average American who just wants to go further on a tank of gas. As standard combustion engines have gotten more and more efficient, and as the US has been producing more and more oil on our own, the need for ethanol as a means of independent energy production just isn’t there. Senator Lankford (R-OK) has likened the program to no child left behind, calling it a well intended policy that “simply doesn’t work.”

Click Here to Listen to Kelly Donnaly on her experience with E15 fuel

Biofuels are supposed to be great because they’re renewable. You can grow more corn if you need more ethanol. But burning corn for ethanol means that corn can’t be eaten. According to The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, the increase in ethanol production and the RFS itself have actually raised food prices. They state that with increased corn production, other agricultural products are falling to the wayside, resulting in increased food prices. Yale University scientists have but it quite bluntly, writing an article titled “The Case Against More Ethanol: It’s Simply Bad for the Environment,” where they make the case that the cost of producing the corn to make the ethanol negates any benefit the ethanol has.

The controversy exists in Brazil as well, a country lauded by biofuel advocates as a the future.

Brazil makes most of it’s ethanol by sugarcane, an abundant crop that’s cheap to grow, and in a country with the largest fleet of flex fuel cars in the world, that’s important. Because of the huge amount of demand for ethanol, sugarcane is being grown more and more, and in order to make room for it all, large swaths of the Amazon rainforest are being deforested in order to grow the increasing amount of sugar needed.

So, the EPA is in charge of administering a congressionally demanded program to increase the amount of biofuels in an attempt to increase our energy independence, despite the fact that we’ve begun producing our own oil and gas and Americans are using less fuel than in the past. Plus, environmental concerns loom over the use of ethanol, so why is Congress continuing this program?

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, in charge of the Renewable Fuel Standard, has been confident on the future of the program, believing they can amend it and make it a successful program, but changes have been slow due to strong lobbing and pressure from both sides. The Ethanol industry believes this is the future, and have poured millions into the fight. Fuels America, one of the largest conglomerations of the ethanol industry, spent $1,155,000 on lobbying in 2017.

It’s also political on the congressional front, as well as presidential. The increase of biofuels in America have led to increased agricultural jobs, as there is a constant and growing demand for corn, and jobs will always trump the environment.

A spokesman for Senator Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) said that “the senator believes that biofuels will continue to be an important part of the economy here in Iowa. Reversing course on the RFS will be bad news for the citizens of Iowa, who are working hard to fuel the country.”

That sentiment was echoed by senators offices from around the midwest in these corn producing states. The increase in biofuels in great for their communities, and the project of shifting away from biofuels and back to oil is one that would devastate many of these communities. All six senators from Iowa, Nebraska, and Indiana said that they supported increased biofuels despite the concern from environmentalists and car manufacturers.


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