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Bushmills Ethanol plant outside Atwater is pictured Wednesday. Lawmakers will decide this year whether gasoline will contain more than 10 percent ethanol. Current federal law limits ethanol in most gasoline to 10 percent, although specially made cars can use fuel with 85 percent ethanol. Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said data from two universities in Iowa and Minnesota shows cars can use E15 without any problems. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Federal officials considering upping ethanol levels

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ST. PAUL -- Federal officials have until year's end to decide whether gasoline may contain more than the common 10 percent ethanol.

If that happens, ethanol supporters promise thousands of new jobs for the Minnesota economy and another step toward national energy independence.


"We are not going to kneel at the altar of big oil in this country forever," said Doug Peterson, a former state lawmaker and current Minnesota Farmers union president.

A coalition of ethanol producers, Growth Energy, earlier this month submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a request that gasoline be allowed to contain up to 15 percent ethanol. Current federal law limits ethanol in most gasoline to 10 percent, although specially made cars can use fuel with 85 percent ethanol.

The request is not to mandate the sale of what is known as E15, only to allow it to be used in normal cars.

The EPA has until the end of the year to decide on the request.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said that all studies he has seen -- including from North Dakota State University and Minnesota State University Mankato -- show cars can use E15 without any problems. Small engines also should be able to use it without difficulty, he added.

Opponents argue that higher percentages of ethanol damage engines and cause them to run less efficiently. Hugoson said those are the same arguments heard in the1990s when Minnesota became the first state to require that nearly all gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, that Minnesota law requires the state to require 20 percent ethanol in gasoline in coming years -- but only if the EPA grants its approval.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, chairman of the Governors' Biofuels Coalition, recently told President Barack Obama that biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel need promotion.

"It is very important that we have a sustained effort over time to build up biofuels if we truly want a viable, domestic supply of transportation fuel," Hoeven said.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., House Agriculture committee chairman, said he expects a 13 percent blend to receive approval.

If federal officials approve any blend less than 20 percent, the Minnesota Legislature may need to pass new law lowering the goal from the current 20 percent requirement.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said he sees no problem getting broad support to change the law to match the federal decision. He is House agriculture finance chairman.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.