JEFFERSON CITY — Both sides of the ethanol debate agree that the question of how much ethanol should be in Missouri's fuel should be left to the legislature.
In a hearing Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules handed down a ruling that the Missouri Department of Agriculture does not have the authority to raise the limit on ethanol content for fuel sold in the state.
A 2006 law requires an ethanol content of 10 percent for most fuel types in Missouri. This fuel type, also known as E-10, must cost consumers the same as or less than buying pure gasoline.
Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, chairs the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. The committee was tasked with answering the question of who can raise the ethanol cap, and Schmitt agreed with the ruling handed down Wednesday.
"We didn't think the 2006 law authorized the director to do that," Schmitt said, referring to the department's proposed rule change.
Shane Kinne, director of public policy at the Missouri Corn Growers Association, said the group thought the department had the authority to raise the ethanol limit. In light of Wednesday's ruling, January will bring ethanol stakeholders back together for another discussion on the merits of ethanol as an alternative fuel.
The rule proposed by the department would not mandate E-15. Rather, it would give fuel suppliers the option of selling this alternative fuel type.
This rule change isn't arbitrary. Congress passed a renewable fuel standard, or RFS, in 2007 that will require 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be produced or imported each year beginning in 2022. The standard for 2013 is 16.55 billion gallons.
In a memo to the joint committee, Ronald Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said the country is hitting a "blend-wall."
"E-10 in almost every gallon of gasoline will soon be insufficient to meet the ever-increasing federal RFS," Leone said.
Should the rule change be brought up in the next legislative session in the same form, it would make the sale of E-15 an option, not a mandate.
But Leone said allowing fuel suppliers to choose between selling E-10 and E-15 is a moot point.
The EPA approved E-15 for any car made in 2001 or later, and E-15 is sold in nine other states, including Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. Proponents of E-15 tout the fuel as being cleaner burning and cheaper than pure gasoline.
One argument against E-15 is that diverting more corn to the production of ethanol will lead to rising food prices. The three biggest uses for Missouri corn are: feed for livestock, 42 percent; manufacture of ethanol, 32 percent; and exports, 15 percent.
Kinne said those numbers won't see a significant change if the E-15 rule goes into effect, since corn produced for consumption is a national market, and prices won't see much of a change either, since the price of corn is set on a global scale.
The MPCA has found a number of issues with E-15, including a lower fuel economy than E-10 and pure gasoline. Leone said E-15 gets 5 to 10 miles per gallon less than pure gasoline. Furthermore, many fuel stations would have to modify their existing equipment, which could cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to upwards of $300,000.
Leone also cited statements from 12 major automotive manufacturers, as well as a statement from AAA, all of which sounded off on the dangers of using E-15 in any of their vehicles not specifically built to handle the higher ethanol content.
Matt Hoelscher, a service technician at Joe Machens Nissan, who said he hadn't personally dealt with E-15, said you would be best to heed the warning of car manufacturers.
"They're building vehicles specifically to stand the 10 percent, and if they're changing the law to go to 15 percent … I would want to know what the manufacturer states for a tolerance that the vehicle can withstand," Hoelscher said.
"Even though Ford says no," Leone said, "even though Nissan says no … the department is saying, too bad, we're going to let you burn E-15. Who is liable for that?"
Another issue that critics of ethanol raise is that, despite being a cleaner burning fuel, there's still some pollution that comes from planting and harvesting the corn that goes into making ethanol.
But Kinne responds that corn is going to be produced whether or not it's going into ethanol, and if you compare the production of corn to that of oil, Kinne said it's clear that ethanol has a net environmental benefit.
The MPCA memo concluded by saying the organization supports ethanol as an alternative fuel, but there must be solutions to the issues raised before E-15 is widely used.
Despite overall support of ethanol, Leone condemned the E-15 rule in a second memo to the committee, arguing that to make such a change, it has to be implemented by law.
"The E-15 rule fails the 'small test' of science, engineering and common sense," Leone said in the memo.