The ethanol industry has won another round in its fight to get more of the corn-based biofuel into gasoline. The EPA Friday cleared the use of 15 percent ethanol/gas blends for all vehicles made between 2001 and 2006.
The ethanol industry has been trying for almost two years to get the blend, called E15, to the marketplace. Last October the EPA approved the 15 percent blend for vehicles made in 2007 and later.
Brian Jennings with the American Coalition for Ethanol says the latest decision, reaching back to 2001 vehicles, is a significant step forward in boosting ethanol use.
"We're really pleased that EPA finally came forth with a decision regarding E15, that indicates a majority of the cars on the road can use the product," said Jennings.
That's about 150 million vehicles. But Jennings acknowledges there are still many hurdles to clear before E15 shows up at gas stations.
Several groups have sued to block sale of the fuel. Those groups include some financially powerful organizations tied to the oil industry, like the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. That group says the EPA's testing of E15 has not been extensive enough to prove the 15 percent blend is safe for car and truck engines.
Another issue is how E15 will be labeled at the pump. The EPA has proposed a label which starts with the word "caution," followed by an exclamation point. The ethanol industry says that wording will scare away consumers from using the new ethanol blend.
Jennings expects the legal and labeling issues to be resolved, so that E15 will begin showing up in the marketplace before the end of 2011 -- perhaps as early as October.
When E15 reaches the marketplace, it's unknown how many gas stations will decide to sell it. Many of them already sell 10 percent ethanol. But the National Association of Convenience Stores, which represents about 50,000 U.S. gasoline sellers, said gas stations will have to install new pumps -- at $20,000 each -- to handle the higher blend.
Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the association, said about 60 percent of the convenience stores in the U.S. are owned by individuals with limited financing. He doubts many will want to risk the money it will take to sell E15.
"It's probably well beyond their resources," said Lenard. "So you're looking at a fairly limited audience for the concept of selling E15 down the road."
Even with the hurdles, ethanol supporters say the EPA's E15 decision is beneficial. Last year the industry produced about 13 billion gallons of the fuel, which consumed more than one-third of the nation's corn crop.
By allowing more ethanol per gallon of fuel, they believe the E15 decision will boost production and sales of ethanol. But that would leave the industry with another potential headache.
With food prices already on the rise, more ethanol production could reignite complaints that the industry's demand for corn is fueling inflation.
The EPA has said there won't be a decision any time soon on boosting the ethanol concentration for cars and light trucks manufactured before 2001 -- or for motorcycles, heavy-duty vehicles or non-road engines -- because there is not sufficient testing to support such an approval.
The EPA has delayed decisions on using 15 percent ethanol several times as the agency and the Energy Department have tested the ethanol-blended gasoline to make sure it is safe. The agency has approved the blend only for newer cars and trucks because they have more durable emissions systems.
Ethanol burns hotter than gasoline, causing catalytic converters, which help clean engine emissions, to break down faster.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)