US president Joe Biden announced a plan to lower US fuel prices by rolling back a ban on summertime sales of a high-ethanol gas blend known as E15 gasoline. The Biden administration claimed that E15 gas would be 10 cents cheaper per gallon on average than other blends.
But Biden’s plan, like other options to stall rising gas prices, isn’t likely to have a big impact if enacted. Only 2,300 US gas stations—about 1.5% of the country’s roughly 150,000 fueling stations—sell E15 gas. The remaining 98.5% of gas stations may not have the proper equipment (pdf) to safely store E15.
What impact would that have? Refueling with E15 would knock about 10 cents off the average US gas price of $4.20 per gallon. Applying those savings to sales at the 1.5% of US gas carrying E15 fuel, and the average national gas price could fall by around 0.2 cents per gallon. That would, In a best-case scenario, lower the national average to about $4.19 per gallon.
What is E15 gas?
E15 is a gasoline blend that contains 15% ethanol, a biofuel that in the US is mainly made from corn. Its use is negligible compared to E10 gas, which contains 10% ethanol. Nearly all gas sold in the US—95% as of 2016—is E10 gas.
E15 gas is only compatible with passenger cars made since 2001. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not approved the use of E15 in motorcycles, older cars, or other gas-burning vehicles like lawnmowers or boats, because the higher ethanol content in E15 could damage their engines. Since Ethanol contains a third as much energy as gasoline, a car burning E15 gas will get slightly worse fuel efficiency than the same car running on E10 gas.
Why is E15 gas banned in the summer?
The EPA banned summer sales of E15 gas in 2011 for fear that its higher ethanol content would create more smog. Ethanol emissions can react with sunlight to create smog, so the agency saw summer as an especially risky time to burn extra ethanol.
Former US president Donald Trump briefly lifted the ban on summer E15 sales ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, in an effort to placate corn farmers hurt by his trade war with China. But last year, a US appeals court reinstated the ban, ruling that the Trump administration didn’t have the authority to legalize E15 sales without Congressional approval.
Biden is attempting a similar maneuver to placate voters angry about high gas prices ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. It’s unclear whether his attempt will withstand legal scrutiny better than Trump’s did.