Farmers excited, environmentalists worried after EPA approves year-round sale of E-15

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Hoosiers could soon see a change at the gas pump after the Environmental Protection Agency approved the use of E-15 ethanol year-round.

Wednesday, leaders in the ethanol industry gathered in downtown Indianapolis for the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop and Expo, where they celebrated a decision they say is a big win for Indiana farmers.

"Oh this is fantastic news for us," said Chris Bliley, VP of Regulatory Affairs at Growth Energy. "A lot of our industry was there in Iowa (where President Trump toured an ethanol plant) but we had 75-100 people gathered around the TV screen watching.”

E-15 is a fuel blend using 15 percent ethanol. Standard gas contains 10 percent or less. In 2011, the EPA approved the sale of E-15, but banned it from June until September, citing environmental concerns. However, the agency switched course this year, allowing the sale year-long.

“This is something we’ve been working on for seven years," Bliley said.

At the gas pump, drivers might notice E-15 pumps popping up more often. Some will be displayed as "Regular 88," one octane level higher than standard 87. Right now only a few thousand gas stations in the U.S. sell the fuel, which tends to run a few cents cheaper than standard gas.

Leaders in the ethanol industry expect its use to expand drastically following the new regulations.

“We’re in a much better mood than we were a week ago,” laughed corn farmer Tom Chalfant.

It's been a rough year for the farmer based out of Parker City, Indiana. The trade war has hurt corn prices, and the historic rainfall has kept him and his sons out of the field during planting season.

"It's been a challenge," Chalfant said of the rain. "1981 was a similar year to this. Fortunately, we had a good growing season and a late frost so we were able to have a crop. We’re hoping for that this year also, but it has been a challenge.”

While he attended the fuel expo downtown, his sons were out working in the hopes of completing their planting in about a week’s time. Chalfrant also invests in ethanol and is the Vice Chairman of Cardinal Ethanol in Union City, Indiana.

"Randolph County has been hurt economically like most of east central Indiana," Chalfrant said. "So ethanol has been a real boon to our neighborhoods.”

He says about 30 percent of U.S. corn goes into ethanol production, keeping up the demand for Midwestern corn.

"Without ethanol, corn prices would be very, very cheap," Chalfrant said. "The government would be making subsidy payments to farmers, and farmers would rather make their money out of the market than from government subsidies.”

However, Indiana environmentalists have concerns. They fear E-15 will have a harmful impact on air and water quality.

“It results in a slight reduction in VOCs which is a precursor to ozone, but at the same time it leads to an increase in nitrous oxide that more than offsets that decrease in VOCs,” said Jesse Kharbanda, Executive Director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Kharbanda says the change won't necessarily have an immediate impact in Indiana, but he worries it could harm the air and water long-term.

"The Hoosier Environmental Council very much empathizes with the struggles facing many corn farmers due to historic flooding and the fallout from the ongoing trade war," Kharbanda said.  "But weakening public policy that will likely hurt the health of vulnerable populations and will exacerbate long-standing toxic issues facing our rivers and lakes is not the way to go."

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management also responded, saying:

"IDEM’s Office of Air Quality indicated there is a slight increase in evaporative volatile organic compound emissions, but they are not very reactive to induce ozone formation. Therefore, there is no notable impact on actual air quality."

Meanwhile, ethanol industry leaders want to see E-15 become the standard choice for fuel at the pump, in turn helping Hoosier farmers and possibly driver’s wallets.

"We see this as momentous for the industry,” Bliley said. "This certainly is a shot in the arm for farmers out there.”

The EPA has approved the use of E-15 in car models 2001 and newer.

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