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How Biden is trying to lower fuel prices — with corn

Selling more corn-based ethanol may mildly ease pain at the pump. But the move may also increase pollution.

Gas pumps with a sign indicating the gas is containing up to 10% ethanol at Victory gas station in Pembroke Pines, Fla., in 2013. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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With prices continuing to climb and midterm elections approaching, the Biden administration is searching for any way to curb inflation for spending-weary Americans.

Now a new policy is coming from an unexpected place: the Environmental Protection Agency.

The administration announced Tuesday it will allow the sale of gasoline blended with higher levels of ethanol through the summer. The move will give some drivers a cheaper fuel option when they fill up. But burning more corn-based biofuel may come at a cost to the environment.

What is the Biden administration doing?

The plan involves lifting a summertime ban on sales of higher ethanol blends of gasoline, known as E15.

The move by EPA Administrator Michael Regan would allow year-round sales of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol, which comes from corn and other plant materials. Most gasoline burned in the United States has lower concentrations of ethanol.

Aiming for a political win, President Biden spoke Tuesday at a bioethanol production plant in Iowa, the country’s top corn-growing state. Putting ethanol in gasoline is popular with farmers in the Midwest, but generally criticized by environmentalists and oil companies.

“I’m here today to talk about the work we’re doing to lower costs for American families and put rural America at the center of our efforts to build a future that’s made in America,” Biden said.

President Biden on April 12 said the EPA will allow a gasoline blend that includes 15 percent ethanol to be sold this summer to deliver relief at the pump. (Video: The Washington Post)

The announcement comes amid a wave of actions from the White House and Federal Reserve to keep inflation in check.

But Biden’s speech came just hours after the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced a 8.5 percent rise in prices in March compared with a year ago, driven in part by a surge in energy costs.

Will this actually ease fuel prices?

A little. For drivers, buying gasoline with more ethanol mixed in could save a family 10 cents per gallon on average, Biden officials estimate, with greater discounts available at some stores.

Pavel Molchanov, an energy analyst with Raymond James, pegged the savings at about 5 cents a gallon. “Not much, but every little bit helps,” he said.

But E15 isn’t available to every driver. Only about 2,300 stations sell the fuel, across 30 states. And older cars, which are often the biggest gas guzzlers, can’t use it. Only vehicles made within the last two decades can burn it safely.

What’s more, the move doesn’t address the underlying reason oil is in such short supply and fuel prices are so high: the disruption to oil coming from Russia after its invasion of Ukraine as well as the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to AAA, the price of a gallon of gasoline averaged $4.10 on Tuesday, a 43 percent increase from a year ago.

“There’s no magic wand,” said Patrick De Haan, an oil analyst at GasBuddy. “There’s no way to move the needle significantly enough to bring prices to pre-covid levels.”

Will this be bad for the environment?

The decision does carry some environmental and health risks.

After all, the original restriction between June 1 and Sept. 15 was first put in place over concerns that burning ethanol-rich fuel in the summertime heat would make smog worse. Indeed, California, which has some of the worst air pollution in the nation, doesn’t allow E15, but is considering it.

Ed Avol, a professor and air pollution expert at the University of Southern California, said switching to ethanol reduces carbon monoxide pollution but leads to higher levels of outdoor ozone, which is linked to asthma and an array of other ailments.

“So depending on how you look at it, ethanol could be argued to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for air pollution,” he said. But all things considered, he added: “I am supportive of removing ethanol from gasoline.”

Then there’s climate change. A study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests corn-based ethanol, despite being a renewable fuel, may not be a solution to rising global temperatures.

Funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation and the Energy Department, the research looked at the entire process of manufacturing ethanol and found it was probably at least 24 percent more carbon-intensive than regular gasoline.

That’s due in part to how much land had been converted to corn fields since a 2005 mandate from Congress that ethanol be mixed into the nation’s gasoline supply.

“Biden’s move to double-down on production from the pollution-plagued ethanol industry is driving us deeper into the hole,” Mitch Jones, managing policy director of the environmental group Food & Water Action, said in a statement.

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