While the USDA policy is at least symbolically important, the mandate to use ethanol in the nation's most populous state promises to be a genuine boon to cornbelt refiners, if resistance can be overcome.
Officials with the California Environmental Protection Agency contend using ethanol would not only add pollution to the air, but also unreasonably increase the cost of fuel at the pump. Further, they contend that mainstream gas formulas will meet Clean Air Act parameters when burned by the current fleet of automobiles. With those arguments in hand, the State of California is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to overturn its recent ruling requiring gasoline sold in the Golden State to contain ethanol.
The basis for the conflict centers on the Federal mandate that parts of 18 states, and the District of Columbia, reduce air pollution levels. For the most part, this has been achieved by using fuel additives that create fewer pollutants when burned. The additive of choice was petroleum based Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether, or M-T-B-E, but it was found to be a pollutant and has been banned by many states, including California. This opened the door for MTBE's renewable competitor ethanol. But recent studies have shown that while ethanol reduces carbon emissions it also increases levels of potentially lung-damaging oxides of nitrogen.
For their part, petroleum companies also have been making claims they can make a cleaner burning gas formula without additives while maintaining a competitive price.
If state officials can find a federal official to overturn the ruling, prospective ethanol makers will be left holding the bag.
Despite wrangling by all sides, the U.S. EPA maintains it can not grant California's request because the Clean Air Act does not give it the authority.