U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack suggests boosting the percentage of ethanol blended into gasoline should be the top priority for the nation’s ethanol industry. Ethanol producers have been waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to set next year’s “Renewable Fuels Standard” which dictates how much ethanol the country’s refiners are required to produce — and the oil industry is required to blend into gasoline.

“The focus should not, in my view, necessarily be just on the numbers and what EPA’s decision is going to be,” Vilsack says. “It should be on how do we circumvent the oil industry or how do we work with them to provide more distribution systems.”

The oil industry filed a lawsuit in October, challenging federal rules that essentially guarantee a certain amount of ethanol is produced in the U.S. each year. Some members of congress have tried to repeal the renewable fuels standard altogether. Vilsack says he is “concerned” by those developments.

“At the end of the day, we need a strong standard,” Vilsack says. “Regardless of what the numbers might be year to year, we need a commitment to that renewable fuels standard.”

According to Vilsack, the EPA has a “difficult task” in setting the volume of ethanol that must be produced each year — a task assigned to the EPA by a 2005 law.

“They’re faced with the fact that those standards were set on the premise that we, as a country, would consume more and more gasoline from year to year. The reality is with fuel-efficient vehicles we’re consuming less, so the assumption upon which those numbers were based was incorrect,” Vilsack says. “…Because of the oil industry’s reluctance to allow expansion and it’s campaign to discourage people from using E15 and not having enough E85 stations, we’re now bumping up against a thing called the ‘blend wall’ where essentially there’s no place left to put that ethanol unless we have increased blend rates.”

There are about 10 million “flexible fuel” vehicles in the U.S. today, but few stations offer blends of ethanol that are higher than the standard 10 percent, or E10.

“The oil industry has done a very good job of making it very difficult to expand ethanol use in this country by discouraging people from using E15,” Vilsack says, “and not providing opportunities to have access to E85 for flexible fuel vehicles.”

Vilsack made his comments today during taping of the “Iowa Press” program that airs tonight on Iowa Public Television.