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Drought, Mythical Blending Wall, Gasoline Price / Demand

August 31, 2012

The drought affecting the Midwest is causing some strange soul searching over the federal RFS mandate in EISA 2007.  Numerous articles are appearing in the media that report widespread criticism of the ethanol mandate, here, here, here and here.  That last article reported on two state governor’s official petitions to waive the RFS mandate for the duration of the drought.  Since these are official petitions governed by the EPA’s statutes, they must be answered within 90 days by the EPA after a public comment period as discussed here.

What is ironic is that theoretically the U.S. will hit the ethanol “blending wall” next year … maybe, but then again maybe not.

In order to understand the ramifications of the “blending wall” one must understand the unintended consequences of the federal RFS mandate.  EISA 2007 was supposed to be a Renewable Fuel Standard.  If one were actually to read the act one would assume that “Renewable Fuel” would be defined.  It is sort of in a couple of places.  It is usually defined as E85 and in one place it is defined as any blend that exceeds 10%, i.e. E11 – E85.  Nowhere in the act is Renewable Fuel defined as E10, because E10 is actually gasoline with 10% ethanol in it, but it is still just plain gasoline, not Renewable Fuel as defined by the act.

E10 is never mentioned in EISA 2007 and there is a good reason for that. There is a cast in stone blending quota table in the act that requires ever increasing amounts of ethanol to be blended into our gasoline through 2022 when 36 billion gallons of ethanol and advanced bio-fuel of some type is supposed to be blended into gasoline.  Since the U.S. only uses about 135 – 140 billion gallons of gasoline / yr. one could see from the math that we would only need about 14 billion gallons of ethanol, at the most, to take every gallon of gasoline in the country E10.  It should be crystal clear that the table was designed around the production of Renewable Fuel as defined in the act, which is E85.   Of course it is not helping the RFS that the demand for gasoline in the U.S. is declining … precipitously as it turns out,  because a lot of people are buying much more efficient cars and the price of gasoline only rises thus driving down demand.  (So much for the law of supply and demand as it is supposed to affect pricing.)

Since the ethanol quota defined in the table in EISA 2007 is 13.8 billion gallons next year, we should be at the “blending wall” after which more and more ethanol will be required by the table, but there will be no place to put it.  But we actually aren’t at the blending wall, due to a gimmick in the law, which is alluded to here:

“… excess ethanol production over the past two years enabled obligated parties—refiners, blenders and importers—to save or bank enough tradable compliance credits, otherwise known as Renewable Identification Numbers or RINs.

About 20% of those RINs were carried forward to this year and can be used to meet RFS requirements this year and next year, Cooper said.”

So it appears we may be as much as 20% under the blending wall going into next year, or as much as 2.6 billion gallons of ethanol, enough to result in 26 billion gallons E10, or about 18% of all gasoline produced if we needed 140 billion gallons of gasoline next year, not a sure bet.  Clearly these shenanigans will delay the blending wall for at least another year and is one of the reasons that we still see a lot of E0 in rural areas where the cost of upgrading the terminal infrastructure for blending ethanol has been strung out as long as possible.  (As of last spring there were still 9 terminals in very rural parts of the U.S. that had no ethanol blending capability.)

So all of this has resulted in a bureaucratic dance that even you can participate in.  The governors of NC and AR have made their move and now you can add your comments to the discussion by using this link at the EPA. Please be mindful that you are commenting on the governor’s petitions, not on the validity of the RFS mandate per se. But remember that none of this charade will really resolve the built in catastrophic failure of the federal RFS mandate, which is that without massive Renewable Fuel (E85) production the quotas hard coded into the act can never be met.  So there is a good chance the EPA might even grant the one year waiver requested so it can get some breathing room before the looming train wreck that is inherent in the act. After all when doom looms, all good bureaucracies delay, delay, delay. (By any chance does that remind you of our Fed policy?)

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