In July 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed a 2019 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule change that lifted outdated restrictions on the year-round sale of E15 related to the Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) volatility waiver.
What is RVP?
RVP is a term that refers to the measurement of the volatility of gasoline or the emissions associated with the evaporation of the fuel. In general, more evaporative emissions can lead to more smog formation, especially in the summer when heat and sunlight increase the evaporation of fuel and the creation of smog. Lower RVP gasoline means fewer emissions from evaporation at the fuel site.
A long and winding road
In order to combat the rising issue of smog, especially in major American cities, the Clean Air Act prohibits the sale of gasoline with a higher volatility during the summer season of June 1 to Sept. 15. In 1990, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to provide an RVP waiver for fuel blends “containing gasoline and 10% ethanol.” Despite the fact that bioethanol increases fuel volatility when it is mixed with gasoline at lower concentrations, Congress wished to encourage use of the burgeoning fuel in recognition of its other environmental, energy and economic benefits. At the time, E10 was the highest bioethanol blend sold, and was available in only limited quantities nationwide. By the late 2000s, however, E10 became the predominant fuel blend available for vehicles in the United States. The bioethanol industry then sought to bring a higher bioethanol blend — E15 — to market to even further take advantage of bioethanol’s blends. Among other benefits, the vapor pressure and tail pipe emissions of E15 are less than E10, and bioethanol blends above E10 will actually reduce total RVP emissions from today’s level. Put simply: if reducing smog, limiting greenhouse gases and improving air quality is a national goal of the Clean Air Act, E15 is the best fuel available for most cars on the road today.
A win, a setback
Upon issuing the 2019 rulemaking that allowed for the sale of year-round E15, the EPA declared the renewable fuel blend “substantially similar” to E10 and extended the RVP waiver to gasoline containing 10% bioethanol to E15. This action led the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufactures and others to file a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s actions. Growth Energy and others along with the EPA fought to protect the 2019 rulemaking. Unfortunately, the three-judge panel found that the original RVP waiver that allowed for the sales of E10 did not apply to E15.
Summer 2021 driving season likely protected
In response to the court ruling, there are multiple actions that could be taken to ensure access to year-round E15. Fortunately, the 2021 summer driving season — the second in the books for year-round E15 — is almost certainly protected. This is because bioethanol advocates are appealing the decision to ask the nation’s second-highest court for an en banc hearing — a hearing before all 11 judges of the D.C. Circuit Court. This should allow for the protection of E15 throughout the remainder of the 2021 summer driving season as the process could last months.
In addition to an en banc hearing, the EPA could act on its own to lower the RVP of the gasoline blend stock that is combined with bioethanol to make a finished fuel. However, this pathway could take considerably longer than other options.
Legislation to allow the year-round sale of E15 could also provide a permanent fix to seasonal restrictions. Bioethanol supporters, including POET, are already working to garner support from biofuel champions at the Capitol and will work to include E15 legislation in any bill that has a path toward passing through Congress.
The stakes couldn’t be higher on climate
The Biden Administration has made climate a top priority, and E15 is a ready solution to help the administration meet its climate goals. E15 is a low-carbon, liquid fuel option to immediately reduce the GHG emissions from the 270 million vehicles on the road today. Year-round, nationwide E15 could reduce CO2 emissions by more than 17 million tons, the equivalent of removing nearly four million cars from the road. A comprehensive lifecycle analysis found bioethanol’s carbon intensity is 46% lower than the average carbon intensity of gasoline with some bioethanol in the market today achieving even higher reductions.
As the nation continues to recover from the economic effects of COVID-19, rolling back higher bioethanol blends at the pump prevents drivers across the country from accessing affordable, available fuel blends — like E15 — and increases consumption of fossil fuels. Clean, renewable biofuels also support approximately 300,000 U.S. jobs, and increasing the use of E15 can support more than 182,000 additional jobs.
In the last decade, American families have selected E15 to fuel nearly 25 billion miles driven because it is a lower-cost, higher-octane option at the dispenser, saving drivers up to $0.10 per gallon. Restricting summertime sales of E15 would increase costs for drivers, allowing oil companies to pocket as much as $3.4 billion with cleaner more affordable biofuel blends pushed out of the market.