Will Congress or the courts end the ethanol battle?

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If one desires to be an equal-opportunity annoyer, just issue the long-awaited revised ethanol volume figures under the Renewable Fuel Standard. Congrats to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for pissing off everyone. Perhaps that’s exactly the intent?

Last week, the EPA announced revised volume figures for the amount of ethanol required to be blended into gas supplies under the Renewable Fuel Standard. In doing so, the EPA might have calculatedly played its cards very well, dumping any solution to the fuel-standard debacle in the lap of either Congress or the courts. Here’s why:

On one hand, the large coalition that includes the marine industry has got to like the proposed reduction to 16.3 billion gallons of ethanol in 2015, because it’s down from 20.5 billion originally set in the 2007 legislation. Still, it appears the current E10 will likely be raised to E15 to meet the volume requirements going forward. With the problems even E10 creates for marine engines, coupled with data showing growing demand for ethanol-free gas (E0) accounted for 7 percent of use last year, the marine industry is still appropriately calling for elimination of a corn ethanol mandate altogether. That dumps the challenge of revising the fuel standard in the lap of Congress.

But the EPA has played no favorites. It has raised the anger of the ethanol folks, too. Groups like Growth Energy (the ethanol lobby) slammed the proposal. "We have sincere concerns that these proposed numbers are not moving forward to the degree that Congress has intended for the RFS,” Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis said. Congress had mandated billions more gallons both now and in the years ahead than the EPA is proposing.

But it is comments by Iowa Renewable Fuels Association executive director Monte Shaw that brings in new dialogue. "The Obama Administration has no legal authority to reduce the ethanol numbers,” Shaw said. “For conventional biofuels, this is a path to nowhere. The proposed ethanol level for 2016 is less than what we already produced in 2014.”

A similar call to arms comes from the National Corn Growers Association, which said the EPA has chosen to "ignore the law," according to association president Chip Bowling. “We will fight to protect and build profitable demand for corn.”

So has the EPA cleverly diverted the issue ultimately to the courts? We’ll see.

In the meantime, the number of gas stations selling E15 or higher blends of ethanol is rapidly growing. It increases the fact that the nation’s boaters are vulnerable to misfueling. For example, both the Kum & Go and Sheetz chains have announced they’ll have a combined 125 stations offering the “alternative fuel” by the end of next year.

Specifically, Kum & Go expects to have 65 locations in seven states selling E15 next year. Sheetz announced in March a plan to offer the fuel at 60 North Carolina locations by the end of 2016. And Murphy USA is among some other convenience store chains with plans to add E15 fueling sites. Indeed, some industry reports predict there will be more than 1,300 gas stations offering E15 in less than five years.

It’s important to note right now that the EPA proposed volume rules are not yet law. The EPA has slated a public hearing on these proposed numbers on June 25 in Kansas City, Kan. In addition, public comments are now open and being received until July 27.

EPA expects to finalize the numbers by Nov. 30.

In the meantime, we must continue to alert our boating customers about the problems they could experience by inadvertently misfueling. And the battle continues.

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