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Biden scores points in Midwest with ethanol announcement

But environmentalists criticized the decision to allow year-round sale of E15 fuel

President Joe Biden, with a pile of corn as a backdrop at a processing plant in Menlo, Iowa, announced his move Tuesday to allow year-round sale of gasoline with 15% ethanol content.
President Joe Biden, with a pile of corn as a backdrop at a processing plant in Menlo, Iowa, announced his move Tuesday to allow year-round sale of gasoline with 15% ethanol content. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Corn-state lawmakers cheered the Biden administration’s decision Tuesday to allow the year-round sale of gasoline with up to 15 percent ethanol, while the head of a petrochemical trade group questioned the legality of the maneuver and environmentalists said it would increase ozone pollution.

The White House said it would allow the sale of E15 gasoline — fuel that uses a blend of as much as 15 percent ethanol — to be sold throughout the summer.

The EPA, which regulates the sale of E15 gasoline and other biofuels, will issue a waiver to allow the sale of the fuel, the White House said.

“I have been fighting tooth and nail for this, year after year,” Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, said at an appearance Tuesday with President Joe Biden at an ethanol plant near Des Moines. “I always knew that we needed to make biofuels a part of our clean-energy solution.”

Axne and other members of Congress of both parties from the Midwest had pushed the administration to allow E15 to be sold year-round following Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Facing a tough election year, marked by high inflation driven in part by elevated fuel prices, Democrats in Washington have backed several methods to lower costs for the public, including holidays from the national gasoline tax and the embrace of more biofuels.

“Today’s emergency action from President Biden to allow summer sales for E15 is the right choice for consumers, family farmers and our rural communities,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who is running for reelection, said the use of E15 would ease gasoline prices.

Warnock called the decision an “important step toward bringing relief to Georgia drivers, but it’s not enough.” He said, “The administration needs to do more to hold greedy oil companies accountable for taking advantage of war in Ukraine to keep prices high, which I’ll keep pushing them to do.”

Congressional Republicans from the Midwest, including Sens. Roger Marshall of Kansas, John Thune of South Dakota and Joni Ernst of Iowa, also cheered the announcement.

“The president is right to take this step, and I will continue to press for biofuels to play a significant role in a truly all-of-the-above energy strategy that can restore American energy independence,” Thune said.

Marshall called the decision “welcome news” and said E15 should be sold year-round on a permanent basis.

Bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate would make the sale of E15 year-round permanent.

E15 has been blocked from being sold during summer months over concerns it contributes to smog — ground-level ozone that forms when pollutants and sunlight mix.

Under the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal requirement that transportation fuel contains a minimum of biofuels, refineries blend ethanol with gasoline. Smaller refineries can apply to the EPA for waivers for this process, which oil industry groups generally criticize as cumbersome and expensive.

Chet Thompson, president and CEO of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, which represents refineries, criticized the decision.

“An additional three months of E15 sales won’t do anything to address high crude oil prices, and 98 percent of retail stations can’t even sell the fuel,” Thompson said. “This is politics, not a real solution for drivers.”

Environmentalists criticized the Biden administration for its decision.

“This rule will probably save people less at the gas pump than what they can save by making sure their tires are properly inflated,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity. “However well-meaning it might be, kids and the elderly shouldn’t pay the price with their health for slight gas savings.”

Mitch Jones, managing policy director of Food & Water Action, said because E15 is only sold in “a tiny fraction” of gas stations, the administration was sidestepping the large problem of lowering transportation emissions.

“The only valid solution to escaping the grip of expensive, polluting energy is to transition immediately to clean, renewably sourced electricity for our cars, homes and businesses,” Jones said.

About 2,300 gas stations in the country, primarily in the Midwest, offer E15.

The environmental benefits of the RFS are questionable, researchers say.

A February study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found corn-based ethanol generated as many or more emissions than gasoline.

Due in part to more water use and degraded land, “the carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced under the RFS is no less than gasoline and likely at least 24 percent higher,” the authors said.

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