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EIA Study: Refiners Could Meet 95 RON Standard Without More Ethanol

November 29, 2018


A new Energy Information Administration (EIA) study concludes that U.S. petroleum refineries would have "no problem" meeting a requirement to produce gasoline with a higher minimum octane rating (95 Research Octane Number, or "RON") beginning in 2022, and assumes that refiners would not use more ethanol beyond current levels to meet such an octane standard. Automakers have called for the broad introduction of higher octane fuels to facilitate fuel economy improvements and reduce tailpipe emissions. The EIA-commissioned study, conducted by oil industry consulting firm Baker & O'Brien, Inc., examines a scenario in which all new vehicles beginning with model year 2023 require the use of 95 RON gasoline, which is equivalent to today's premium grade gasoline. According to the study, refiners would simply increase reformer severity to produce higher octane gasoline blendstock, which would then be blended with 10% ethanol to produce a 95 RON finished fuel. The authors found that " significant changes in refinery configuration or throughput would be required to meet the minimum 95 RON gasoline requirement." Increasing the reformer severity to make higher octane gasoline at the refinery "is well within the range of normal operations," the report says, noting that "...existing domestic refineries should have no problem meeting the (95 RON) requirements..." Even as the demand for 95 RON gasoline grows as more 95 RON-required vehicles enter the fleet in the study's 2027 scenario, refiners "...appear to be able to meet the increased 2027 octane requirements with minor operational adjustments. No industry-wide capital intensive projects would be needed to meet the 2027 requirements." Reacting to the EIA report, Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) President and CEO Geoff Cooper said, "This study confirms that a 95 RON requirement by itself would do nothing to expand the market for ethanol, even though ethanol will continue to reign as the cheapest and cleanest source of octane available on the market. Rather than using ethanol to boost octane, refiners would choose to run their reformers more intensively to increase production of higher octane hydrocarbons, many of which are highly toxic and would worsen air quality. However, if implemented alongside of—not in lieu of—the Renewable Fuel Standard, a 95 RON requirement could provide new market opportunities for America's ethanol producers and farmers, as refiners would be compelled to do the right thing and choose ethanol as the primary means of raising octane levels. Still, to truly deliver the efficiency gains and emissions reductions needed in the future, a high octane, low carbon fuel with 98-100 RON would be a much better option."