NHTSA/EPA Reset Could Open a Pathway for Cleaner High-Octane, Low-Carbon Fuels

August 2, 2018

The Trump administration today formally unveiled its long-anticipated proposal to freeze fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks, keeping them at 2020’s previously set fleetwide average standard of about 37 miles per gallon (mpg) through 2026. The rule adopted under the Obama administration would raise the standard for passenger vehicles to approximately 54.5 mpg over that six-year period.

The proposal, which will undergo a 60-day public comment period, comes after EPA’s statement under then-Administrator Scott Pruitt that the standards set in 2016 for 2022-25 cars and light trucks were “not appropriate.” This week’s proposal reverses agency findings laid out two years ago, now claiming that the added cost of new vehicles resulting from the efficiency upgrades would be more than the money saved by spending less at the pump.

The comment period offers the opportunity to present a call for action for EPA to provide a viable pathway to a high-octane, low-carbon, lower-cost fuel for the future. EPA needs to acknowledge what they have known for years: increasing the octane level in the nation’s market fuel will enable use of more efficient, lower polluting engines.

That octane can be supplied, starting now, by increasing use of available ethanol. The U.S. fuel distribution infrastructure is capable of keeping up with demand for the new fuel. To make the change, EPA must fairly assess the ability of ethanol to enable increased octane in market fuel, at least cost, to the advantage of environmental and economic considerations.

The White House is also taking public comments on a related proposal to end a waiver under the Clean Air Act that gives California the ability to set its own vehicle emission standards and mandate the sale of electric vehicles. California officials have stated they will go to court to protect their authority. A dozen other states and Washington, D.C. follow California’s lead in their standards.

Coming jointly from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and EPA, the proposal lays out a number of options for setting the mileage efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. Consideration of future fuel standards coupled with the daunting task of achieving the 2021 standards offers the opportunity for automakers to continue their exploration and development of more efficient engines – which, when paired with high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels, can result in cleaner, more economical vehicles.

In its notice in April, which announced the decision that rendered the previously proposed standards inappropriate, EPA conceded that HOLC fuels can play a role in meeting higher vehicle-efficiency targets. The observation is startling after its glaring omission from the 2016 intermediate assessment proffered by the previous administration. Given the pathway HOLC fuels offer for addressing and meeting the very aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) and fuel economy targets that have been established since 2012, the new acknowledgement of HOLC fuels is welcome.

Over the past several years 25x’25, which has led Solution from the Land’s (SfL) clean energy platform, has worked with partners in the agriculture and auto manufacturing sectors to make the case that high-octane fuels can be delivered cost-effectively through the use of ethanol. DOE research has shown that HOLC ethanol blends, paired with optimized engines, are among the lowest-cost means to achieve significant fuel economy and GHG improvements going forward.

Despite the issues raised by EPA in its handling of what is formally known as the Reconsideration of the Final Determination of Mid-term Evaluation (MTE), EPA now recognizes the importance of considering fuels and engines as a system. The agency explicitly invited comment on the role that fuel properties, especially octane rating, can play in facilitating compliance with long-term fuel economy and GHG emissions standards. SfL, through 25x’25, responded to that invitation, offering input and recommendations that address the agency’s specific request for comments pertaining to the impact of the standards on advanced fuels technology; particularly, the potential for high-octane blends.

As the Trump administration considers the means for setting new fuel economy and emissions standards going forward, officials should keep in mind that high-octane gasoline, available for general use, could be used by automakers to support increased introduction of higher-efficiency internal combustion power trains that can better address the need for fuel economy and reduced emissions. It should also be noted that current “premium” fuel is not a viable solution for automakers, as the octane rating is not high enough and the retail fuel price is cost-prohibitive to consumers. Ethanol provides the most cost-effective source of higher octane that can be made widely available to markets across the country by 2025 through the use of existing and expanding distribution infrastructure.

By identifying the need to increase the octane rating of regular gasoline, EPA can open up competition in the marketplace and enable ethanol producers, as well as feedstock providers like American corn and sorghum growers, an opportunity to supply lower-cost, cleaner octane – an economic boost long needed in a financially battered rural America. Additionally, increasing octane requirements would provide automobile manufacturers with near-term technology options they can utilize to achieve reductions in GHG emissions, improve the fuel economy of the nation’s light duty fleet, lower fuel costs to consumers and support sustainable job growth throughout the United States.

Solutions from the Land encourages its clean energy partners to tell NHTSA and EPA that if properly implemented, future GHG and fuel economy goals can be met in tandem with programs like the Renewable Fuel Standard to reduce emissions and fossil fuel consumption. That, in turn, will create opportunities for more biofuels that can help to attain those future environmental and efficiency goals.

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