EPA Emission Standards Require Improvements in Fuel Quality

September 16, 2021

The EPA is proposing to revise the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards for light-duty vehicles for 2023 and later model years to make the standards more stringent.

As part of an executive order issued in January by President Biden, the EPA has been ordered to consider whether to suspend, revise or rescind the standards previously revised under the Trump administration as part of “The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks.” Promulgated in April 2020, the SAFE rule significantly weakened the standards established in 2012. EPA is now proposing to return to substantially more stringent GHG standards in each model year from 2023 through 2026.

Two public hearings on the proposal have been held. Written comments can be submitted online HERE through Sept. 27. Comments are urgently needed to support mid-level ethanol blends as a new, improved, gasoline to be used in the climate change fight and to reduce health effects caused by exhaust for everyone, especially disadvantaged communities in and around major metropolitan areas.

The EPA identifies several flexibilities that are included to ease auto manufacturers’ transition to the more stringent standards. Unfortunately, while the proposal includes incentives for the production of vehicles with zero or near-zero emissions technology, it does not include any provisions that could significantly reduce GHG emissions from gasoline powered vehicles.  Matching increased octane with improved engines could nearly double the emissions reduction claimed for the SAFE rule proposal – an enormous, missed opportunity.

However, the EPA’s proposal does invite comments on what the agency can do to promote more fuel-efficient vehicles and mentions various fuel-related issues. Such comments should note that the Biden administration strongly supports addressing climate change, protecting public health and ensuring that minorities and the poor are not overlooked. EPA action toward these goals is directed by the Clean Air Act.  Comments need to point out that deployment of mid-level ethanol blends, to increase octane, is available now as a companion program to other rule provisions that will complement climate challenge action, improve health, and reduce cost to consumers.

SfL’s recommendations to the EPA include mandating a minimum octane standard and phasing out today’s low-octane blends, as new vehicles are available to take advantage of the efficiency benefits of midlevel ethanol blends.

The EPA must also correct its inaccurate fuel economy formula to allow the use of midlevel ethanol blends. The agency has admitted that the formula is erroneous and that it unfairly penalizes fuel containing ethanol but has yet to fix the problem. The erroneous formula discourages automakers from proposing use of higher-octane gasoline that uses ethanol as the octane enhancer.

High-octane midlevel ethanol blends would offer cost effective GHG reduction for gasoline powered vehicles for several decades. The current option for high octane gasoline is to use “premium” gasoline. Only about 10 percent of the market chooses to buy this more expensive product. Considering the historical cost of ethanol, using ethanol to increase octane would encourage adoption of more efficient engines by the whole ICE market because the high-octane product would cost about the same as current “regular.” This companion program would add to the GHG reductions considered as portions of the vehicle fleet gradually shifts to electric.

Recent work by Steffen Mueller, principal economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, shows that like electric vehicles (EVs), ethanol-gasoline blends provide substantial greenhouse gas reductions relative to gasoline-only vehicles. In fact, his modeling show that high-octane fuel vehicles with ethanol provide very similar GHG savings compared to EVs for many states.

While the research shows that the GHG cuts achieved by using higher-octane, midlevel ethanol blends are equal to the emission reductions that the EPA thinks are available from electrification, the agency is ignoring a duty to consider a very cost-effective way of achieving desired improvements, to the detriment of environmental quality, consumers, farmers and industry.

EPA needs to take this opportunity to open the door for the use of high-octane, low-carbon fuels made with ethanol. It is clear that the blends would enable more efficient vehicles, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce pollution. The EPA’s duty under the Clean Air Act is to protect the health of all Americans by use of commercially available methods. The agency would be irresponsible to ignore this option in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. An improved gasoline blended with 25-30-percent ethanol is an immediate, low-cost pathway that offers substantial carbon and health risk reductions that will have the greatest impact in poor, urban areas. EPA must include this important option in those considered for adoption in the new rule, with an immediate effective point of no later than 2025.

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