Sheila McNulty US ethanol to be regarded with a clear head, at last

The US Environmental Protection Agency says it will wait until the middle of next year before deciding whether to increase the allowable ethanol content in fuel. Growth Energy, a biofuels industry association, had asked the EPA to allow for the use of up to 15 per cent of ethanol in gasoline, up from 10 per cent.

But the EPA says it wants more testing data on whether engines in newer cars can handle an ethanol blend higher than the current 10-per cent limit before making a decision. This is a welcome development.

Waiting for the science has not been the way government has, in the past, made its decisions on many bits of energy policy. Indeed, the whole move into ethanol in the US was fast-tracked, despite objections by the industry that it took more energy to process ethanol, and concerns that the fuel was taking food out of the mouths of the hungry. The headlong rush into corn-based ethanol in the US pushed up corn prices, which had knock-on impacts on everything from grain for cows to tortillas. Few besides ethanol producers themselves were pleased with how it all turned out (and even then, things later went wrong for many of those producers).

Even the American Petroleum Institute, which has been a major critic of energy decisions taken by the Obama Administration, had to issue some kudos to the EPA for its decision. Here is what the industry trade group had to say:

EPA made a sound decision in deciding to wait until it has the scientific data and durability tests completed before increasing the allowable ethanol content in fuel. Thorough vehicle and engine studies that develop robust, scientifically supported data are needed to ensure that adverse impacts, such as engine damage, are avoided.

But API did find fault with part of the EPA decision,  noting that it is willing to consider a waiver of only part of the vehicle fleet – vehicles made from 2001 on – instead of on the full vehicle fleet. It makes a good point, but having the US government question ethanol at all is a first step. Let us take heart in that.