Root Cause of Ethanol ‘Blend Wall’? Consumers Don’t Like Rip Offs

by Marlo Lewis on March 13, 2015

in Blog

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EPA is more than 15-months behind its statutory deadline (Nov. 30, 2013) for establishing Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) blending targets for last year.

To recap, in Nov. 2013, EPA for the first time proposed to scale back the government’s overall biofuel blending target for the following year. EPA determined that the statutory target for 2014 would exceed the “blend wall” — the maximum quantity of ethanol that can be sold each year given legal or practical constraints on how much can be blended into each gallon of motor fuel.

The most common blend today is E10 — motor fuel with up to 10% ethanol. Although EPA approved the sale of E15 in October 2010, potentially increasing by 50% the total amount of ethanol sold annually, lack of compatible fueling infrastructure, warranty and liability concerns, and, most importantly, consumers’ natural aversion to paying more for a lower-value product effectively limit the standard blend to E10.

So in Nov. 2013, EPA proposed to trim the statutory target for 2014 from 18.15 billion gallons to 15.21 billion gallons — a 16% cutback. That ignited a firestorm of protest from biofuel interests, and EPA has been dithering ever since.

Biofuel lobbyists such as Renewable Fuels Association CEO Bob Dinneen claim the blend wall exists only because the oil industry has “steadfastly refused” to invest in blender pumps, storage tanks, and other infrastructure compatible with E15-and-higher ethanol blends. Weirdly unexplained is why it’s not up to the biofuel industry to pay for the infrastructure on which its success supposedly depends. The RFS forces the oil industry to buy biofuel, process and add value to it, and create a guaranteed retail market for it. Isn’t that enough?

Not for Dinneen and company. If they had their druthers, Congress would compel oil companies to build biofuel-compatible infrastructure and (as President Obama proposed during his first presidential campaign) mandate that all new cars be flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on blends up to E85 (motor fuel made with 85% ethanol).

But would even that policy wish-list eliminate the growing mismatch between market realities and the RFS production quota schedule, which requires 36 billion gallons of biofuel to be blended and sold by 2022? No.

Although ethanol is cheaper by the gallon than regular gasoline, ethanol has about one-third less energy than an equal volume of gasoline. On an energy-adjusted (bang-for-buck) basis, regular gasoline is almost always the better buy than ethanol. Consequently, the higher the ethanol blend, the worse mileage your car gets, and the more money you spend to drive a given distance.

FuelEconomy.Gov, a Web site jointly administered by EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE), calculates how much a typical motorist spends in a year to fill up a flex-fuel vehicle with either E85 or regular gasoline. The exact bottom line changes as gasoline and ethanol prices change. The big picture, though, is always the same: Ethanol is a net money loser for the consumer.

At today’s prices, depending on make and model, it costs an extra $900, $1,200, $1,600, or even $2,400 annually to run a flex-fuel vehicle on E85 rather than regular gasoline. Those hefty price differences — not oil company machinations or EPA indecision — are the principal barrier to market penetration of E85 and other high-ethanol blends.

Even if everybody owned a flex-fuel vehicle, and every service station installed E85 blender pumps, few willing customers would buy the fuel. Lower energy content, inferior fuel economy, and higher consumer cost are the root cause of the blend wall. The same factors also explain why the “choice” to buy ethanol must be mandated. After all, if ethanol were a great deal for consumers, why would we need a law to make us buy it?

EPA and DOE estimate the annual gas and E85 expenditures for 238 flex-fuel vehicle models. Here are the agencies’ estimates for eight of those models.

E85 vs Regular gasoline March 12, 2015 (1)




E85 vs Regular Gasoline March 12, 2015 (2)




E85 vs Regular Gasoline March 12, 2015 (3)




E85 vs Regular Gasoline March 12, 2015 (4)

R. White March 13, 2015 at 12:17 pm

I am not sure what prices were used to do the calculations, but they are severely outdated. If current markets were used, the calculations can only come from a lack of understanding of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) and the RIN market. The combination of gasoline, ethanol and RIN markets today would allow ethanol to be a more than $1.20/gal discount to unleaded gasoline, or a 66% discount. For E85, it is clear that the discount in most locations is more than the fuel economy penalty experienced by those that actually use the product. If you visit, you will see the average discount of E85 to regular gasoline with ethanol (E10 – 10% ethanol) is 21.8% and a whopping 38.7% to regular gasoline without ethanol. Ethanol is cheaper by the gallon, cheaper by the BTU and cheaper by the mile. For a website that is supposedly about cleaner air and environment, it is amazing a post would suggest using more fossil fuels. Guess the real agenda is coming through?

C. Langer March 15, 2015 at 9:33 am

Mandated ethanol is a force fed market. With the use of RIN’s and mandates the price of non ethanol gas is artificially high. This allows E10 to dominate. E85 would cost to much to make price effective so that explains why it cost twice as much to use. On the clean environment front it has been determined corn ethanol to be twice as harsh to the environment when all factors ate considered. In all reality if this were treated like a coal plant it should be shut down. The corn lobby wants to look at it like you would clean electricity but in all reality it is like that of electricity from a dirty coal plant.

Clay K March 17, 2015 at 7:07 am

Free market, blah blah, rip offs, blah. How do you think big oil got big! Let’s go back from 1918 forward and see how much the fossil fuel companies got in subsidies. If they are willing to pay it all back with interest then let’s talk. Till then, move over because the new kid gets a place at the table.

JLB March 17, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Where are you getting your information from. It is ridiculously incorrect. Here’s how many BTU’s are in each gallon of transportation fuel:

Do you work for the ethanol lobby?

Frederick Colbourne March 14, 2015 at 1:23 am

I understood that the problem is that car engines suffer as the percentage of ethanol increases.

Corn is a food and turning it into ethanol is offensive to many people, except those who make a living from doing it.

I cannot see how corn ethanol can be justified as a means to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

Has the government considered the amount of fossil fuel that goes into making fertilizer and running the machines and all the distillery equipment together with transportation, pumping and storage?

I have read studies that show that ethanol production and distribution produces more CO2 than it saves.

Can someone explain to me why this is not just another political boondoggle?

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