Between the Lines: I’d like to know… wouldn’t you?

South Dakotans likely wouldn't find it too difficult to focus on a couple of goals when it comes to energy, specifically fossil fuel use, in our state.

In this day of global warming and other threats to our environment, we need to strive to develop and consume cleaner burning fuels.

I don't think anyone in South Dakota – especially farmers or others with connections to the ethanol industry – would argue that our state's citizens should increase their use of biofuels as they also strive to use energy, specifically fossil fuels, more efficiently.

Maybe it's just me. I have this nagging feeling that those laudable goals are simply drifting away from us. For reasons that seem a bit dubious.

We like to blame our energy problems relating to fossil fuels on the oil-rich Arab world. Since the Arab oil embargoes of the 1960s and 70s, it's been conventional wisdom to talk about American dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf. But the global oil market has changed dramatically since then.

Today, the U.S. actually gets most of its imported oil from Canada and Latin America.

And many Americans might be surprised to learn that the U.S. now imports roughly the same amount of oil from Africa as it does from the Persian Gulf. African imports were a bit higher in 2010, while Persian Gulf oil accounted for a bit more last year.

America is one of the world's largest oil producers, and close to 40 percent of U.S. oil needs are met at home. Most of the imports currently come from five countries: Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela and Nigeria. (Source: Energy Information Administration).

So, one may reason that our national energy policy is at least making an attempt to ensure that when we pull up to a gas station and make a choice among the premium, regular or a gasoline/ethanol mix options that are available, we don't have to worry. Gasoline is still gasoline. Right?

I have to admit I'm not so sure.

One of the reasons ethanol has grown so popular in recent years is government policy that encouraged its use, and made the E10 blend a constant, convenient recourse for motorists.

E10 is a low-level blend composed of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. It is classified as "substantially similar" to gasoline by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is legal for use in any gasoline-powered vehicle.

The use of E10 was spurred by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (and subsequent laws), which mandated the sale of oxygenated fuels in areas with unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide. This kicked off the modern U.S. ethanol industry growth.

Today, E10 is sold in every state. In fact, more than 95 percent of U.S. gasoline contains up to 10 percent ethanol to boost octane, meet air quality requirements, or satisfy the Renewable Fuel Standard. E10 doesn't qualify as an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPAct).

What's become apparent in the last week or so is that this 20-year practice, which has certainly always seemed noble, is getting a bit tarnished. And if things don't change, its image could get as sooty as the tailpipe of an oil-burning '58 Buick that has seen better days.

This observation may be wrong – I'm certainly no expert in the refining of gasoline – but it at least appears that ethanol is starting to look like the 99-pound weakling on the playground that 's getting picked on by the bigger kids.

Gasoline refiners out west see no problems with dumping South Dakota with not just 85 octane gasoline, but also 82 octane gasoline. The refiners will say the Renewable Fuel Standards made them do it.

An octane rating is the measure of a gasoline's ability to resist engine knock, rattling or pinging from premature ignition of the fuel-air mixture in the cylinders.

In South Dakota, a common fuel slate offers octane grades in regular (87), mid-grade (89) and premium (91 to 93), some blended with ethanol.

Blends with an octane rating of 85 typically have been sold west of Wall, but inspectors discovered during an investigation into mislabeling that 85-octane blends are illegal in South Dakota.

Last Thursday, Attorney General Marty Jackley clarified things a bit by ruling that current state law makes it illegal to sell 85 octane gasoline in South Dakota.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard fixed that problem using a band-aid approach by going forward with the implementation of an emergency rule that would allow the sale of 85 octane gasoline in South Dakota.

One can't help but get the feeling that refiners know they can get away with flooding the state with low octane gasoline because 1) South Dakota and other Midwestern states have enough ethanol to blend with the low-octane gasoline they are dumping on us to bring it up to a higher, more acceptable octane standard, and 2) they know states like South Dakota will do nearly anything to avoid a fuel shortage. They'll even pass emergency rules that make the sale of illegal gasoline permissable.

Yes, 95 percent of gasoline in the U.S. contains 10 percent ethanol to "boost octane, meet air quality requirements, or satisfy the Renewable Fuel Standard." That's what we've assumed to be standard practice for about 20 years now.

But when refiners begin shipping 82 octane gasoline to South Dakota, can it be transformed to E10 by adding 10 percent ethanol to the mix? I've been assuming all along that the E10 blend has consisted of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent 87 octane gasoline.

In other words, is E10 still "substantially similar" to gasoline?

It appears that we're lucky to have ethanol available for reasons other than attempting to use more renewable energy. We need it just to get the low grade gasoline flowing our way to a high enough octane level so that the engines of our cars, trucks, boats, etc. can operate properly.

It feels like gasoline refiners have bullied ethanol producers, perhaps against their will, to come to their rescue as they put out an inferior product.

I'm trying to keep an open mind, and not rush to judgment. Perhaps the low octane gas isn't inferior. Perhaps it's what we must accept to meet environmental policies and to keep gasoline prices from increasing.

Perhaps, however, we as consumers are being duped. I'm assuming, as a layman, that low octane gasoline isn't as efficient, meaning a motorist would get poorer mileage and end up burning more of it when compared to a higher octane fuel.

Do we truly know whether a standard blend of ethanol may give enough zip to the lower octane stuff that is heading our way? Is E10 still E10 in this changing energy landscape?

I guess I'd like to know. Wouldn't you?

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