Energy Trends Insider: Crashing into the Ethanol Blend Wall

July 25, 2013

Geoffrey Styles, July 24 – The Energy and Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives has been holding hearings this week on the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). It’s otherwise known as the ethanol mandate, although it covers biodiesel, as well. These hearings are timely, since at least two bills have been introduced to reform or repeal the RFS.  During Tuesday’s session Rep. Waxman (D-CA) referred to the “gasoline blend wall, which may be around the corner.” In fact, a review of current gasoline sales and this year’s ethanol target confirms that the ethanol “blend wall” has arrived, at least for some of the nation’s refiners. That explains the urgency of the debate about the future of the RFS.

The blend wall is simply the threshold at which the RFS requires more ethanol to be blended into US gasoline than the quantity necessary to dose essentially all of it with the maximum 10% ethanol content for which most cars on the road were designed. Because the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the RFS, has been unwilling to exercise its flexibility under existing law, the fuels industry must now choose from a set of unattractive options: It can limit mainstream gasoline to 10% ethanol content and absorb substantial RIN costs (see below) or penalties for failing to blend the required volumes of biofuel. It can produce less gasoline than the country needs, or export more of its production, to reduce its renewable fuel obligations. Or it can produce higher-ethanol blends such as E15 and risk the integrity of millions of cars and large portions of the country’s fuels infrastructure, including all but the newest gas station pumps and tanks. All of these choices affect the price consumers pay at the pump.

Not Another Arbitrary Crisis

In order to understand why the blend wall is a serious problem, rather than another arbitrary crisis, we need to examine its two main elements. The first is fairly straightforward, relating to the mechanical integrity of the pumps and seals in automobile engines and fuel systems, as well as refueling infrastructure. While most of these function acceptably with blends of up to 10% ethanol in gasoline, there’s significant controversy about what happens above that threshold. As I noted last month, this issue has become relevant much sooner than the 2007 law anticipated, because US gasoline sales have declined instead of continuing to grow by 1-2% per year, while sales of E85 remain small and mainly regional.