Senate Mulls E15 Summer Fix

Legislation that lifts summer RVP restriction gets hearing

WASHINGTON -- Legislation that would enable E15, the 15% ethanol blend, to be sold year-round in all gasoline markets is getting a pivotal hearing this week.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will be hearing testimony on June 14 about The Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act (S. 517), which would amend the Clean Air Act to extend the Reid vapor pressure (RVP) volatility waiver to E15 so that retailers could offer it without any restrictions from June 1 to Sept. 15. 

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved E15 for use in 2001 and newer vehicles, only flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) can currently use it in the summer in about two-thirds of gasoline markets. The EPA regulates fuels’ RVP, which measures evaporation rate, to control ozone and smog in the summer. Congress had limited RVP to 9 pounds per square inch (psi), but granted E10, the 10% ethanol blend, a waiver because of its lower emissions. Neither the EPA or Congress, however, has yet granted a waiver to E15, even though ethanol advocates point to its lower volatility and ability to decrease emissions.

Retailers in conventional markets who would like to continue selling E15 in the summer would have to use a special blendstock that is tough to find and uneconomical to ship, according to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), Washington, D.C.

“EPA’s nonsensical and disparate RVP regulation offers no consumer or environmental benefit whatsoever,” said Bob Dinneen, RFA president and CEO. “In the end, EPA’s actions are punishing consumers who are being denied access to the cleanest, lowest-cost and highest source of octane fuel on the planet. We again call on EPA or Congress to resolve this arcane barrier.”

For retailers who do sell E15, the lack of an RVP waiver is a business burden, said Ron Lamberty, senior vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), Sioux Falls, S.D.

“On top of the extra hassle of relabeling fuel dispensers twice a year and telling customers why they can’t buy the less-expensive, higher-octane fuel they bought last week, retailers tell us the confusion carries over, and keeps some drivers from switching back to E15 when it’s ‘legal’ again in mid-September,” he said in a statement.

While the RVP issue has limited E15’s growth, several large chains have added it to their fuel lineup in the past year, including Casey’s General Stores, Kwik Trip and QuikTrip.

Ready for Prime Time?

Emily Skor, CEO of ethanol industry group Growth Energy, Washington, D.C., described the passage of S. 517 as “essential to America’s continued leadership in low-carbon biofuels.”

“For too long, outdated rules have forced drivers to switch to less environmentally friendly options at the pump during the summer driving season, when fuel prices reach their peak,” she said. “After three years of hard work, we finally have a chance to enact a fix.”

Some large c-store chains have also been active lobbying in support of the waiver legislation. Among them is Sheetz, which began selling E15 in 2015. 

“From a retail perspective, this minor fix would be a major relief to those offering E15 today and remove one of the biggest barriers for those wanting to offer E15,” said Mike Lorenz, executive vice president of Sheetz Inc., Altoona, Pa., in a recent opinion piece on The Hill. “For consumers, it will provide for year-round access and increased availability of E15. Given the value proposition of E15, since it typically sells for less than E10 is cleaner burning and higher octane, the consumer should benefit.” 

The petroleum industry, meanwhile, has lobbied against the further expansion of E15, arguing it is “not ready for prime time” from a fueling infrastructure and vehicle compatibility perspective, according to Frank Macchiarola, downstream and industry operations group director of The American Petroleum Institute (API), Washington, D.C. In a conference call this week in advance of the S. 517 hearing, Macchiarola said that despite no reports of vehicle issues with E15 since retailers began offering the ethanol blend, "we haven’t had E15 penetrate the marketplace to such a degree to even see those problems."

He also acknowledged some retailers’ interest in E15, but reiterated API’s concerns about the fuel's market readiness, citing research that indicated it could cause issues with the fueling systems and engines of many vehicles on the road today.

“There’s no question that for some retailers who are of a certain size or their business structure is favored toward using more ethanol—there’s no question those folks would look favorably on the bill,” he said. “But from our lens, we’re not looking at just a snapshot of individual retailers. We need to take the whole system into account. ... The fuel needs to be ready for prime time not just for the retailer but really more importantly for the consumer.” 

In response, Dinneen of RFA stated that E15 has been tested more than any previous new fuel additive, been sold for the past five years with no reported misfueling issues, and has been approved for use in all light-duty vehicles built since 2001, or nearly 90% of the vehicle fleet. E15 is currently sold at around 830 sites in 29 states. 

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