President Biden announced Tuesday that he would allow higher-ethanol gasoline blends to be sold this summer in his latest bid to curb high gasoline prices that have voters fuming.
Higher levels of ethanol, which makes gasoline less expensive, are banned during the summer months because it contributes to smog. This year, Mr. Biden is putting American’s pocketbooks before environmental concerns.
“With this waiver, on June 1, you’re not going to show up at your local gas station and see a bag over the pump that has the cheapest gas,” Mr. Biden said at a speech in Menlo, Iowa. “You’re going to be able to keep filling up with E15 and it’s going to solve a whole problem.”
Senior administration officials estimated the move would save drivers 10 cents a gallon at current prices.
Under Mr. Biden’s order, the Environmental Protection Agency to allow gasoline with 15% ethanol content, known as E15, to be sold between June 1 and September 15. The EPA is expected to issue an emergency waiver before June 1.
The EPA is also considering additional action to facilitate the year-round selling of E15, according to the White House.
Typically, only the standard 10% ethanol blend can be sold during the summer to reduce smog caused by E15’s higher volatility on warm days. However, research in recent years has concluded it may not produce more smog than the 10% blends sold year-round.
Former President Trump sought a similar move in 2019 when he directed the EPA to permanently allow the summertime sales of E15. That plan was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court when it refused to hear a federal appeals court decision striking down the plan.
Mr. Biden touted the move as critical to lowering soaring gas prices, which have contributed to rising inflation. The Labor Department announced Tuesday that U.S. consumer prices rose 8.5% from a year ago, the highest increase since December 1981.
Before the announcement, Mr. Biden toured an ethanol plant in Iowa, which is the nation’s top producer of renewable fuel and the corn used to make it.
“We saw today’s inflation data, 70% of the increase in prices came from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s price hike on gasoline,” Mr. Biden said. “We need to address this with the urgency that it demands.”
Mr. Biden has been under pressure for months to get control over high gasoline prices and has increasingly pinned the blame on Mr. Putin, though the inflationary trend began before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
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Polls consistently show voters are frustrated with Mr. Biden’s economic policies and Democrats fear the anger will cost them control of both the House and Senate in the November elections.
The average price of a gallon of gas on Tuesday is $4.09, according to data from the automobile group AAA. That represents a decrease from the $4.32 from a month ago, but still higher than the $2.86 per gallon consumers were paying this time last year.
Gas prices were already surging before the Russia-Ukraine war and continued to climb when the U.S. and other countries banned or reduced their reliance on oil from Russia, one of the world’s largest energy suppliers.
E15 is currently sold at 2,300 gas stations across the country. There are more than 150,000 stations nationally, raising questions on how much relief drivers will see from the effort.
Groups representing refiners and fossil fuel companies question if the waiver will result in savings for consumers.
The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a refiners trade group, said E15 is too small of a market to benefit consumers. The American Petroleum Institute called the effort a short-term fix that doesn’t address America’s energy needs.
Ethanol is popular in farm belt states like Iowa and Nebraska where Mr. Biden needs to court voters to help his party to retain seats in the midterms.
Tuesday marks Mr. Biden’s first trip to Iowa as president. He has struggled to garner support there. Mr. Biden finished fourth in the 2020 Democratic caucus and lost the state to Mr. Trump by 8 percentage points.
Republican strategist Jimmy Keady said Mr. Biden’s visit is part of an effort to reboot his image as a folksy moderate who can appeal to midwestern voters.
“They are trying to get back to what got him elected as a blue-collar guy who was able to take the middle,” Mr. Keady said. “They are putting him states that can help that image.”
Farm belt lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praised Mr. Biden for lifting the ban on E15.
Sen. Deb Fischer, Nebraska Republican, said lifting the E15 ban will “help lower prices for families at the gas pump,” saying the move was good for families, the environment, and rural America.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said the move will benefit the environment, national security, and farmers.
A group of bipartisan lawmakers had pressed the White House to lift the summertime ban on E15.
Led by Sens. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, and Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, the lawmakers last month urged Mr. Biden to displace Russian oil imports by increasing access to E15 ahead of the 2022 summer driving season.
“Preserving the option for American drivers to select E15 throughout the busy summer driving season will benefit our families and businesses while blunting a vital source of funding for Vladimir Putin’s campaign of destruction,” the senators wrote. “Additional, committing to this policy now will send an important signal of certainty and stability to fuel retailers currently or considering selling E15 in the year ahead.”
Gasoline with 15% ethanol has been alleged to cause damage to auto engine parts, according to a study by the Coordinating Research Council (CRC), a coalition of oil companies and automakers.
The study found that E15 could damage valve and valve seat engine parts in some vehicles, which could impact millions of cars and trucks. The CRC released the study in 2013 when it was in the middle of a court battle with the EPA to stop the widespread use of E15. It remains the most widely cited study of E15.
The study faced significant pushback from groups advocating the use of E15. Fuels America, a coalition of organizations promoting renewable fuels, said the study displays “clear bias and ignores millions of miles and years of testing that went into EPA’s approval of E15.”
The Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the ethanol industry, accused the CRC of picking and choosing the components, adding that the study didn’t disclose which vehicles it tested, making it impossible to tell if they had been recalled.
In 2019, Mr. Trump sought to permanently allow the summertime sale of E15 in what he promoted as a compromise between agriculture and energy companies.
Oil companies sued and a federal appeals court struck down the effort, concluding the Trump administration overreached its authority. That ruling was upheld when the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled the EPA incorrectly interpreted language in the Clean Air Act.
A senior Biden administration said they don’t expect any legal challenges because their decision is based on a different authority. The official said the EPA concluded the move will not cause environmental harm.