The federal comment period on the Environmental Protection Agency’s revised 2017 volume obligation under the Renewable Fuel Standard ends Monday, July 11.

The federal comment period on the Environmental Protection Agency’s revised 2017 volume obligation under the Renewable Fuel Standard ends Monday, July 11.

The proposed level would require 14.8 billion gallons of grain-based ethanol be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply, an increase of 300 million gallons but still short of the 15 billion target originally set when the mandate was passed in 2005.

Pro-ethanol groups like Growth Energy, the National Corn Growers Association, and the National Farmers Union have continued to protest the agency’s retreat from the ambitious volume levels that were set early on. EPA claims it has authority to waive those initial RFS requirements.

“The biofuels industry needs development, it needs some public policy support, it needs to know if companies invest in this new technology they aren't going to be frozen out of the marketplace,” said Roger Johnson, the president of National Farmers Union, recently in a statement. “The RFS was designed to give them access to the market because if you don't do that legally, the oil companies largely control that. The distribution system will simply say, ‘I don't care what the price is. I don't care if it's half of what gasoline is. We're not going to put it in our pumps.’”

Some of the arguments that have been made against ethanol in recent years include concern about the environmental impact of monoculture corn production, rising demand for ag commodities translating to higher food and feed costs, and general opposition to government intervention in the marketplace.

But at least one country has demonstrated that it’s possible to go all-in on domestically produced renewable fuel. Brazil helped boost its domestic economy by transitioning entirely to sugar cane-based ethanol fuel starting in 1976. Meanwhile, the U.S. has taken a more cautious, more conflicted approach toward renewables.

Even so, Mark Sponsler, executive director of Colorado Corn, which is based in Greeley, was upbeat.

“I’m encouraged by what I hear from our Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the interest, the forward progress and the momentum surrounding renewable energy and ethanol, particularly in our defense program and at major airports,” he said.

The fragmentation of the consumer fuel market, with millions of drivers and countless independent fueling stations nationwide, makes saturating that market difficult, Sponsler said. By contrast, there are only about 40 major airports in the U.S.

“The standard aviation fuel for light aircraft would be 100 octane low-lead fuel,” he said. “Ethanol comes out of the plant at about 114 octane, so it really provides a great base fuel for ending up with that 100 octane low-lead.”

Military operations, which are also more centralized, are another important outlet for ethanol fuel. Its use by that sector fits with one of ethanol’s key selling points: reducing dependence on foreign oil, the sale of which profits enemy governments.