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Environmental

EPA considering boosting ethanol content in gasoline to 20%; auto firms say it will void warranties

As noted in a prior post, current law envisions the entire country moving to gasoline with 10% ethanol over the next couple of years. At the Carbon Market Insight Americas conference in November, EPA's Director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality said EPA was considering boosting the ethanol content of gasoline to 15% or even 20%. The comment was not well received in many quarters. Clean Air Watch noted that limited testing has suggested that catalytic converters will wear out sooner with ethanol blends over 10%. Additionally, various spokespersons for the auto industry have indicated that using higher ethanol content gasoline in nonflex-fuel cars could void warranties. Ethanol advocates dispute these views. The 2007 law also requires EPA, by 2009, to produce an analysis of the GHG impact of ethanol production and use from farm to tailpipe. To qualify for the renewable fuels standard, ethanol must reduce life-cycle GHG emissions by 20% compared to gasoline. As noted in a prior posting, how this analysis is done is very controversial and will make or break the ethanol analysis. EPA has indicated that it will consider indirect land-use changes that would result from increased ethanol production in its GHG analysis. Some academics have done this type of work already (as noted in the prior post), which has been heavily criticized by ethanol proponents, and found that increased production will lead to destruction of forests and grasslands, which will be replaced by croplands, resulting in an increase in GHG emissions. Thus, the nature of the "indirect effects" analysis could determine the result of the ethanol analysis. The fundamental assumption to date is that the will meet its ethanol requirements by using its current, very inefficient production methodology. Left out of the discussion, because it is many years off, is cellulosic ethanol production. [See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol.] According to U.S. Department of Energy studies conducted by the Argonne Laboratories of the University of Chicago, one of the benefits of cellulosic ethanol is that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 85% over reformulated gasoline; however, given that the processes are not yet fully commercialized (to be kind), one must wonder about this type of analysis. By contrast, starch ethanol (e.g., from corn), which frequently uses natural gas to provide energy for the process, may not reduce GHG emissions at all depending on how the starch-based feedstock is produced. A study by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen found ethanol produced from corn and sugarcane had a "net climate warming" effect when compared to oil; this is one of a series of analyses that have tried to do a life-cycle analysis of these various production methodologies. Missing from this analysis is whether the ethanol option even makes sense. As noted in prior posts, even with today's automotive technology, a much higher CAFE standard could be met; the new CAFE standard is very much on the low side of what is technologically possible. Throw hybrids and plug-in hybrids into the policy mix, and other strategies devoid of cropland impacts present themselves.