Trump to move to allow year-round E15 gas sales

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — The Trump administration is moving to allow the sale of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol year-round, which would help farmers by increasing demand for corn, but faces opposition from environmental groups and the oil industry.

President Donald Trump is expected to make the announcement ahead of a rally Tuesday in Iowa, the biggest corn-producing state in the nation.

Current rules prevent the sale of fuel containing 15 percent ethanol, known as E15, during the summer because it can contribute to smog on hot days.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleared the use of E15 fuel for cars that are from model-year 2001 or newer in 2011. Most gasoline contains only 10 percent ethanol.

Trump is expected to direct the agency to begin the process of amending federal rules to allow for the sale of E15 gas year-round. The administration hopes to have the new rules in place by the 2019 summer driving season.  

White House officials are touting the move as an effort to increase the supply of biofuels and providing consumers with more choices at the pump. 

Environmentalists argue that increasing the use of corn ethanol in fuels will increase smog in major U.S. cities, endanger wildlife habitats and pollute bodies of water. 

A bipartisan group 20 of U.S. senators have urged the Trump administration to drop the proposal to increase the percentage of ethanol blended with gasoline.

"We are concerned that doing so would do nothing to address the policies impacting refinery jobs, could hurt millions of consumers whose vehicles and equipment are not compatible with higher ethanol blended gasoline, and risk worsening air quality," the lawmakers wrote. "We write to express our strong opposition to this approach." 

Trump promised to extend the sale of E15 gas during a visit to Iowa in July.

"I’m very close, I have to tell you, to pulling off something that you’ve been looking forward to for many years," Trump said during a workforce development roundtable at Peosta, Iowa. "And that’s the 12-month E15 waiver. We’re getting very close to doing that. It’s a very complex process." 

Support for ethanol has been seen as a way for presidential candidates to curry favor with Iowa voters ahead of the state's influential quadrennial primary elections. 

The American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S. oil trade association, urged Trump in September to abandon any plans permitting E15 sales year-round. It called such a plan "anti-consumer" and warned the higher ethanol blend can damage engines and fuel systems. "In fact," the group said, "three out of four vehicles on the road today were not designed for E15."

Small engines in particular — outboard motors and lawn mowers — have trouble with the biofuel.

Environmentalists have argued there could be unintended consequences of increasing the amount of ethanol that is used in most fuels. 

"Increasing ethanol sales in summer is going to lead to more smog pollution," Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said.

"Detroit in particular will be hard-hit because it's a community that's out of attainment," he added, referencing the EPA rating of the metro area's air quality. "Older Americans, kids and people have trouble breathing are going to be particularly hard hit." 

O'Mara noted that the Clean Air Act prohibits the sale of E15 gas from June 1 to September 15 and he said only Congress has the power to change the law. 

"It's not legal," he said of the Trump administration's proposal to use the federal rulemaking process to make the change is illegal. 

O'Mara said environmental groups like his are likely to sue the administration if they stray from the letter of the Clean Air Act. 

"We want to see what it says, so I think a lot of folks are going to want to take a look at it," he said. "We'll be ready if we don't think it was done legally."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing