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Ethanol, facing slow recovery, rebrands as climate-friendly fuel

Ethanol production plunged to 13.85 billion gallons in 2020, the lowest since 2013 and 12% less than in 2019.

Battered by the pandemic, the ethanol industry labeled itself on Tuesday as the climate-friendly automobile fuel of the future. Officials said it could be a year or more before straggling biofuel sales recover fully from the coronavirus.

“Mark my words, zero-carbon (emissions) corn ethanol is coming,” said Geoff Cooper, chief executive of the Renewable Fuels Association, in a “state of the industry” speech at the annual National Ethanol Conference. “But it’s going to take smart policy and regulation to get us there. And it’s going to take creativity and determination to ensure that ethanol is allowed to live up to its potential.”

Ethanol distilled from “nature’s perfect battery,” ears of corn, produces half as many greenhouse gases as gasoline, he said, and with wider use, it would drive down carbon emissions from the transportation sector, responsible for 28% of U.S. emissions.

The EPA should remove barriers to making E15, a 15% mix of ethanol into gasoline, the common blend, replacing the traditional 10% blend, said Cooper. Adoption of a nationwide low-carbon fuel standard or a requirement for higher octane fuels – an opening for ethanol – would be the next step along with production of flex-fuel vehicles capable of burning higher blends of ethanol, such as E85. At present, only 9% of cars and pickup trucks on U.S. roads are approved for richer blends of ethanol.

“That means we’ll need a serious commitment from automakers or, more likely, new policy measures to ensure production of flex-fuel vehicles ramps up quickly to make broader use of higher blends and fuels,” said Cooper. “This will be the top policy priority for RFA in 2021 and beyond.”

Congress would have to enact a low-carbon fuel standard, Cooper told reporters afterward. “We think there is an outside chance” it could pass as a stand-alone bill.

Ethanol production plunged to 13.85 billion gallons in 2020, the lowest since 2013 and 12% less than in 2019. Half of U.S. ethanol plants were idle or running at reduced capacity last April and May, when gasoline demand fell by 50% due to stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

RFA economist Scott Richman said “2022 seems like a good timeline” for ethanol production to return to pre-pandemic levels of around 16 billion gallons with 14.5 billion gallons used domestically. Some 1.3 billion gallons of ethanol were exported in 2020. Exports could exceed 1.5 billion gallons this year with China back as a customer, said Cooper.

To read Cooper’s speech, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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