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The Biofuel Requirement Of American Gasoline Hits A Roadblock

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The world is awash in oil right now. Russia and Saudi Arabia are pumping so much, crude oil prices have collapsed. And yet the recipe for gasoline in America is influenced by a law that was written when oil seemed scarce and expensive. That law requires gasoline-makers to mix in fuel made from farmers' crops, biofuels. Gasoline companies are fighting that law, calling it out of date. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Scott Sklar helped launch the biofuel boom, but he had a lot of help.

SCOTT SKLAR: Democrat and Republican - we didn't have the more toxic atmosphere back then, and there was a lot of common ground.

CHARLES: He was a young congressional staffer during the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, when the U.S. couldn't get the oil it needed from countries in the Middle East. And this became the first reason for biofuels - national security. People thought if the country could grow its own fuel, it wouldn't have to depend so much on imports.

SKLAR: No question. That was the driver.

CHARLES: Sklar then became a lobbyist for renewable energy, including biofuels, which picked up more support during the farm crisis of the 1980s. Farmers were going bankrupt. There wasn't enough demand for their corn.

SKLAR: We had grain rotting in silos. And we said, well, why don't we ferment it and distill it and turn it into fuel ethanol?

CHARLES: You can mix ethanol into gasoline. It can even help engines run better and reduce air pollution. So farmers were onboard. And finally, environmentalists - they thought ethanol might help slow global warming. Even though burning ethanol does release carbon dioxide, it seems renewable because growing the corn to make it captures carbon from the air. In 2005, they all convinced Congress to pass the Renewable Fuel Standard, the RFS, and expand it two years later. It requires gasoline companies to use ever-increasing amounts of biofuels. And it launched ethanol factories across the Midwestern Corn Belt, like Lincolnway Energy in Nevada, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARSON DUNN: The liquid part of the process, the mixture of water and ethanol, goes from the beer column, goes into the next column.

CHARLES: Plant manager Lars Dunn showed me around this gigantic distillery in 2007.

DUNN: You look in between these lines here, you can see the side glasses.

CHARLES: I see something boiling in there.

DUNN: That's 190-proof ethanol.

CHARLES: Today, almost 15 billion gallons of ethanol gets mixed into gasoline every year. Tens of millions of acres of farmland are devoted to growing the corn to make it. But that growth has now stalled, and people are fighting over how this law should be enforced. You see, the RFS, as it's written, says gasoline companies should be using even more biofuel by now, at least 50% more. But the Environmental Protection Agency hasn't forced them to, partly because biofuels have run into technical obstacles.

For instance, Susan Grissom, an analyst at the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, says a lot of gas stations would have to buy new equipment before they could handle fuel with, say, 15% ethanol, E15.

SUSAN GRISSOM: If the folks who make the tank or the folks who make all the fittings in your pumps say, no, that is not qualified for E15, then you don't want to put E15 in there because you run the risk of actually destroying your equipment.

CHARLES: Changing the gasoline recipe would add costs. So the industry is digging in its heels, fighting to hold the line at 10% ethanol - no more. And the political coalition that really pushed biofuels a couple of decades ago has fallen apart. Here's Sylvia Secchi, an economist at The University of Iowa.

SYLVIA SECCHI: We live in a different world than we did in 2005, 2007.

CHARLES: For instance, that goal of self-sufficiency in energy, it's happened already.

SECCHI: We are on the verge of energy independence without, really, biofuels because of the advent of fracking.

CHARLES: The country is mining so much oil and gas, making more ethanol is not a big national security priority anymore. And environmentalists have fallen off the biofuel bandwagon, too. They've seen the environmental costs. Midwestern farmers turned grasslands into cornfields, and the result was more fertilizer runoff, more soil erosion.

SECCHI: Our water has become substantially dirtier in the 20-plus years I've lived here.

CHARLES: And that promised reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Well...

SECCHI: This is a very thorny issue.

CHARLES: There's a lot of debate over whether biofuels really are much better than gasoline, considering that clearing land to grow corn releases a lot of carbon dioxide, and so does turning the corn into fuel. Biofuel boosters have been promising a greener version of ethanol made from prairie grass, but making it costs a lot more. And now there's a cleaner alternative - electric cars charged by solar and wind power.

SECCHI: So we are just going to use electricity to substitute for liquid fuels for transportation. Given the way things are going, I think this is the future.

CHARLES: One part of that original coalition is still totally committed to increasing ethanol's share of the fuel supply - grain farmers. And they do have supporters in Congress and in the Trump administration. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced it wants to triple the ethanol share in gasoline from 10% to 30%. But it also said that increase should be market-driven, meaning people have to choose that ethanol-rich fuel because it's cheaper or better; the government won't force them to.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "NEW FRONTIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.