Politics Flex-Fuel “Fraud”
posted by March 27 at 18:06 PMon
As President Bush pushes Congress to “move expeditiously” to pass his legislation to increase the use of alternative fuels and develop flex-fuel cars, environmental and consumer groups like Public Citizen noted that flex-fuel cars can run on regular gasoline, allowing automakers to claim a break on federal fuel-economy rules for the rest of their fleets while doing nothing to help the environment. According to Public Citizen, the fuel-economy break reduces the fuel economy carmakers’ fleets must achieve
under an assumption that these vehicles use gasoline 50 percent of the time and E-85 (a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) the other 50 percent. Using this loophole, Ford saved itself as much as $135 million in fines it would have received for model years 2003 to 2005 for not meeting the actual fuel economy standards. In reality, Ford and other automakers are cheating the system because E-85 is not widely available, and some vehicles designated as FFVs do not operate properly with the fuel.
Only about 1,100 gas stations nationwide sell E85; 22 states have fewer than 10 E85 stations, and 11 have no providers at all.
And anyway, switching to ethanol isn’t the answer. Because the vast majority of ethanol under production in the US is corn-based, providing crops for ethanol sets up a competition for resources between cars and people, which isn’t that important if you’re a wealthy Western World-er but could be devastating if you live in a country that relies on corn as its staple food—like, say, Mexico. Farmers can respond to higher prices by planting more, but that will require diverting land from other crops or turning virgin habitat into farmland. The UN predicts that 99 percent of Indonesia’s rainforest will be gone by 2022, and similar destruction is happening all over the world, from Africa to Brazil.
Moreover, conventional ethanol production takes lots of energy not just to plant and grow the corn (requiring diesel powered machinery, tons of fertilizer and pesticide, and water for irrigation) but also to make the final product. Distilling the ethanol takes more energy still—so much energy, overall, that ethanol use reduces greenhouse-gas emissions just 13 percent compared to using ordinary gasoline. (Cellulosic ethanol made from other plants, like switchgrass, is much better, but growing switchgrass still takes up land that could be used for growing food crops.)
British journalist George Monbiot goes so far as to call for a complete five-year moratorium on the development and production of biofuels, noting pointedly that
The reason governments are so enthusiastic about biofuels is that they don’t upset drivers. They appear to reduce the amount of carbon from our cars, without requiring new taxes. It’s an illusion sustained by the fact that only the emissions produced at home count towards our national total. The forest clearance in Malaysia doesn’t increase our official impact by a gram.
One idea Bush doesn’t seem so hot on, but which my hometown of Austin is actively promoting: Plug-in cars, which could feed back into the electric grid when they aren’t being used.