EPA, ethanol, and catch-22

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates that petroleum refiners blend 8.65 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol (not made from corn)  into gasoline this year. Last year the requirement was 6.6 million gallons. Oil refiners have not met the mandated requirements because commercial quantities of cellulosic ethanol do not exist. Even the records of the EPA show that no commercial supply exists. The oil refiners were fined by the EPA for failure to meet the impossible mandate.

The American Petroleum Institute and others petitioned the EPA seeking relief from the mandate. The EPA dismissed the petition saying, “the objections raised in the petition [i.e., cellulosic ethanol does not exist] …are not of central relevance to the outcome of the rule because they do not provide substantial support for the argument that the Renewable Fuel Standard program should be revised as suggested by petitioners…”

The EPA says the mandate provides incentive for companies to begin producing cellulosic ethanol.

Production of cellulosic ethanol from wood chips has been around for a long time.

According to researcher Robert Rapier, “In 1819, Henri Braconnot, a French chemist, first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid. The technique was later used by the Germans to first commercialize cellulosic ethanol from wood in 1898. But believe it or not, commercialization also took place in the U.S. in 1910. The Standard Alcohol Company built a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgetown, South Carolina to process waste wood from a lumber mill. Standard Alcohol later built a second plant in Fullerton, Louisiana. Each plant produced 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of ethanol per day from wood waste, and both were in production for several years.” But they ultimately failed.

In spite of that history, there is no successful commercial production today in the U.S. The EPA wants us to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Current attempts at producing cellulosic ethanol are experimenting with the grass Miscanthus giganteus. The trouble with this approach is that the yearly production from1,000 acres would be equal to 55 seconds of U.S. oil consumption according to Rapier. So how much land would it take to meet the mandate?

The whole idea of using ethanol is to reduce our use of foreign petroleum. But growing the grass or corn takes petroleum to farm and process the source material. Also ethanol has less energy than gasoline so we wind up using more gasoline anyway.

The whole thing is just so much folly, but such is the state of energy policy in the Obama administration.

See also:

Ethanol fuel not as green as you think

Ethanol from Sugarcane, not so green

Ethanol mandate fails economically and environmentally


  1. The current Renewable Energy Standard was part of the Energy and Independence Act of 2007 (EISA), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush.  It is worth noting that the volume amount of cellulosic biofuels required by Congress (see EISA  Sec. 202 (III)), for 2012 was 500 million gallons-so EPA is certainly working to keep the requirement at an obtainable level.

    1. EPA sets the target every year through rule-making.  They are still mandating use of a product that doesn’t exist in sufficient quantities to satisfy the mandate.

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