EPA Decision Offers Potential New Pathway for Meeting Vehicle Efficiency, Emission Standards

Yesterday, EPA announced its decision on whether the corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) and greenhouse gas (GHG) standards adopted by the Obama administration for model year 2022-2025 light vehicles are “appropriate.”

Not surprisingly, EPA Chief Scott Pruitt said they are not and should be revised. While that has drawn criticism from many, especially in the environmental community, other stakeholders see the rule-making process set in motion by Pruitt’s announcement as an opportunity to put forward new ways of reaching ambitious efficiency and emission-reduction goals for the next decade’s vehicle fleet.

In its formal notice, EPA concedes for the first time the role high-octane, low-carbon fuels can play in meeting higher, fuel-efficiency targets. Glaring in its omission from the 2016 intermediate assessment proffered by the previous administration was any effort to address and consider fuel quality and octane pathways for meeting the very aggressive GHG and fuel efficiency targets that have been established since 2012.

The previous administration’s failure to include these pathways was surprising, given that DOE’s national laboratories had been reporting extensively over the previous two years that major engine-efficiency and emission-reduction benefits can be derived from high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels, specifically blends of ethanol in the 25-30-percent range. Another study published in 2016 by DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory shows mid-level ethanol blends (E25-E40) could offer an improvement in vehicle fuel efficiency by 5-10 percent in vehicles designed and dedicated to use the increased octane, and could provide lower well-to-wheel GHG emissions from a combination of improved vehicle efficiency and increased use of ethanol.

This week’s formal notice acknowledges the recent comments submitted to the agency from ethanol producers and agricultural organizations who support high-octane blends from clean sources as a way to enable GHG reducing technologies, such as higher compression-ratio engines. EPA now recognizes that mid-level, high-octane ethanol blends such as E30 and other new technologies should be considered as part of the evaluation of the standards.

EPA officials need only look a short distance across town to find DOE research touted in February that identifies high-octane blendstocks that could be blended into gasoline for better performance. Released by the department’s Co-Optimization of Engines and Fuels initiative (Co-Optima), the reports represented a major milestone in the first-of-its-kind research that aims to simultaneously transform both transportation fuels and vehicles to maximize performance and efficiency, while minimizing their environmental impact.

The research builds on Co-Optima data first released last June that showed ethanol is the leading candidate fuel additive to achieve 2025 efficiency and clean air goals for the American transportation system.

As ethanol interests have noted this week, some might fear Pruitt’s decision means will lead to a relaxation of GHG standards, allowing more gasoline use and tailpipe pollution. But as the DOE research has shown, if mid-level ethanol blend fuels are approved for use in future engines, transformative reductions in GHG emissions and improvements in fuel economy could be realized.

Some auto industry leaders have said in recent weeks that they are not necessarily advocating a reduction in the average fuel efficiency standards proposed for 2025 (currently 51.5 mpg). But they do want the flexibility to explore different technologies to get them to improved performance, including raising the octane level of gasoline. And they acknowledge that the world market is shifting to low-carbon transportation, and for U.S. auto manufacturers to remain competitive, they must reduce emissions.

The 25x’25 Alliance encourages EPA, which oversees vehicle emissions, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Board, which sets efficiency standards, to establish a higher minimum octane level for transportation fuels and remove non-sensical regulatory barriers which block their use. By doing so the agencies can open a near-term, low-cost pathway that auto manufacturers can use to achieve stringent emission and efficiency standards.


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