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Breaking down the environmental impact of E15 fuel

One study found that using E15 instead of petroleum can lead to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

DES MOINES, Iowa — On April 12, President Joe Biden visited Menlo, Iowa, to announce that sales of E15 will be allowed from June 1st to September 15th; they're usually banned during that time due to worries that E15 production contributes to smog. Advocates say the fuel is a cleaner alternative to petroleum gas, while critics argue the expanded sales are a step backward.

According to Biofuels International, E15 sales broke records in 2021, with 815 million gallons being sold last year—that's a 62% increase from 2020. With the summer sales ban being lifted for 2022, sellers are seeing a big opportunity to bump those numbers up even higher.

"We have to be able to sell it year round. Otherwise, people don't want to take the risk of putting that in that consumers are already kind of inundated with lots of choices at the pumps," said Seth Harder, CEO of Lincolnway Energy.

But what impact could that have on the environment?  E15 advocates say that the fuel burns more cleanly than pure gasoline. One study found that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by as much as 40% by consuming ethanol instead of petroleum. 

"We know that something's changing and 97% of the world's climatologist say we need to do something we need to do it now. So any type of reduction we can do in greenhouse gases in the nation is really a good endeavor," Harder said.

However, some critics aren't convinced. According to the US Energy Information Administration, E15 has been linked to higher smog levels in the summer months—potentially causing airway damage or extra struggles with conditions like asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.

RELATED: Will E15 hurt my car's engine? Explaining Biden's waiver on ethanol gas

"We know that anything that expands or extends this industry does have negative impacts on our air and our water," said Jessica Mazour, conservation program coordinator for the Sierra Club of Iowa.

Because of those risks, advocates who spoke to Local 5 aren't happy with Biden's announcement. They say that the longer Iowa depends on ethanol, the harder it will be for the state to keep up in the long run.

"Anytime that we continue to advance the industry, rather than slowly wean ourselves off of it as our electric vehicle transition continues, is taking us in the wrong direction," Mazour said.

According to the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency will be working with states throughout the summer to help mitigate air quality impacts from increased E15.

Although some sellers like Lincolnway are expecting more gas stations to make the switch to selling E15 due to the expanded selling window, only about 2,300 stations nationwide currently carry the fuel, with about 300 of them in Iowa.

RELATED: Does E15 really save drivers money in the long run?

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