WASHINGTON — It's a hard decision for drivers: Do they choose a gasoline that's cheaper and cleaner even if, as opponents say, it could damage older cars and motorcycles?
That's the peril and promise of a high-ethanol blend of gasoline known as E15. The fuel contains 15 percent ethanol, well above the current 10 percent norm sold at most U.S. gas stations.
The higher-ethanol blend is sold in just fewer than two dozen stations in the Midwest, but could spread to other regions as the Obama administration considers whether to require more ethanol in gasoline.
As a result, there's a feverish lobbying campaign by oil and ethanol interests that has spread from Congress to the White House and the Supreme Court.
On Monday, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's chief lobbying group, to block sales of E15. The justices left in place a federal appeals court ruling that dismissed challenges by the oil industry group and trade associations representing food producers, restaurants and others.
Tom Buis, chief executive officer of Growth Energy, an ethanol industry group, hailed the decision as a victory for U.S. consumers, who will now have greater choice at the pump.
"Now that the final word has been issued, I hope that oil companies will begin to work with biofuel producers to help bring new blends into the marketplace that allow for consumer choice and savings," Buis said.
The API had argued that E15 was dangerous for older cars.
Putting fuel with up to 15 percent ethanol into older cars and trucks "could leave millions of consumers with broken-down cars and high repair bills," said Bob Greco, a senior API official who has met with the White House on ethanol issues.
The ethanol industry counters that there have been no documented cases of engine breakdowns caused by the high-ethanol blend since limited sales of E15 began last year.
"This is another example of oil companies unnecessarily scaring people, and it's just flat-out wrong," said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol industry group.
The dispute over E15 is the latest flashpoint in a long-standing battle over the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, approved by Congress in 2005 and amended in 2007. The law requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of ethanol into gasoline each year as a way to decrease reliance on fossil fuels and lower greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a 16.5 billion-gallon production requirement for ethanol and other gasoline alternatives this year, up from 15.2 billion gallons last year.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a law, which takes effect next Monday, repealing the state's Renewable Fuel Standard, which required that all gasoline sold in the state had to contain 9 or 10 percent ethanol or be blended with other alternative fuels.