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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Flex-Fuel “Fraud”

posted by on March 27 at 18:06 PM


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.


RSS icon Comments


I think immigration works just fine without water. Irrigation is the word you want. Otherwise, this is spot on: corn ethanol is a con. Though the "competition for food" angle is way overhyped; they're different kinds of corn. But it takes more oil to make either one than you save using ethanol -- which this story proves they have no intention of actually doing.

Posted by Fnarf | March 27, 2007 6:18 PM

You'd be surprised at how corn dependent our diets have become. We actually consume more corn per capita than Mexico now.

Posted by Gitai | March 27, 2007 6:23 PM

Obviously I meant immigration. You can't grow crops without it.

Posted by ECB | March 27, 2007 6:28 PM

I haven't seen any data that suggests E-85 ethanol blend produces less emissions than gasoline powered vehicles. I understand it actually produces more because fuel mileage (mpg) using E-85 is not as good as gasoline. This might change with further research, however I hear the major auto manufacturers see ethanol powered vehicles as an intermediate goal in power plant design i.e., they aren't really excited about it. Their Holy Grail is still electric and eventually hydrogen. Based on their current research, I fully expect to be able to do 200 mph in a relatively inexpensive electric powered vehicle in the next 15 years.

Don't forget this weekend's Formula One race in Sepang, Malaysia, Barnett. I tell you that new kid, Louis Hamilton, is one hot driver for a rookie. Even Savage would find him exciting.

--- Jensen

Posted by Jensen Interceptor | March 27, 2007 7:23 PM

Even if they're different kinds of corn, there's still competition: an acre growing corn for fuel is an acre that can't be growing corn (or anything else) for food.

Sugarcane is actually a much better source of ethanol than corn (hence Bush's little PR stunt in Brazil a few weeks ago) but there's not much of the US that is suitable for cane production and the sugar growers (to whom the Bush family owes at least one election in Florida) would never allow the necessary imports.

But plug-in cars are hardly the answer, either. Where do you think that electricity in the plug comes from? Here in the NW it might come from hyrdopower, but in Austin it comes from burning hyrdocarbons (probably lovely coal).

Posted by Joe | March 27, 2007 8:09 PM

The only way biofuels can compete with the energy output of petroleum is by sitting in the ground for 100 million years. So, we just need to learn to sit back and be patient. Either that or develop controlled hydrogen fusion.

Posted by laterite | March 27, 2007 8:13 PM

Plug-ins are not the answer, no, but part of the answer. Yes, the power has to come from somewhere, which is usually a coal power plant. But that does not change the fact that there are 50 million people with carbon machines in their driveways. Wouldn't it be better to centralize the production of carbon rather than having it spread out among the entire populace? Once we do that, we can focus on getting the power plants clean and safe. Plug-in hybrids can be implemented right now and battery technology has progressed to 300 miles a charge (look at the tesla roadster). That is more than enough for a day trip to the mountains or the beach as well as a days commute to work, which the most that people do with their cars. The key is to get the production of carbon out of the hands of the public. That would be a huge step in the right direction.

Side Note: Don't even get me started on Hydrogen, they don't even have a way to properly store enough of it in your car for a decent trip, let alone an infrastructure (like fill-up stations) to support it. Plug-ins are ready now (and have been since 96', just watch Who Killed The Electric Car)

Posted by Brandon H | March 27, 2007 9:31 PM

NPR did a report about this whole E-85 fraud a few months ago.

Not only is Ford producing a bunch of "multi-fuel" cars to meet their economy targets, but most of the people who buy these cars are completely unaware of it. Ford's assertion that 50% of the time the car burns E-85 rather than gasoline is utter bullshit. Buyers go into a Ford dealer and buy Taurus (or whatever). The dealer never bothers to tell the buyer that it can burn an alternative fuel. So even people who live a block away from an E-85 station, and own a multi-fuel car, are still burning 100% gasoline in them because they don't even know they own a multi-fuel car.


Ford is obviously doing this as a way to technically meet the letter of the law, and has no real interest in doing anything to help the environment. Unless they can make money at it.

Posted by SDA in SEA | March 27, 2007 10:53 PM

Taking away our dependence from corn requires a different ethanol strategy. One way to go about this is to empower local communities to produce ethanol from the best available feedstock. I wrote a long article yesterday on the benefits of decentralizing, or "regionalizing" alternative energy as it relates to ethanol production. Not only does this support the local economy, but it reduces the strain on major ethanol crops like corn. This will surely happen with the help of cellulosic ethanol production.

The biggest hurdle the cellulosic ethanol producers face at the moment is the cost of the enzyme needed to breakdown the cellulose into a sugar. While everyone from private industry to the US govt is throwing money at these research projects, we have yet to hear how they are going. I posted last week on this topic specifically in the article, "Cellulosic Enzyme Cost Reduction is still a WIP".

I frequently write about the business side of alternative energy on: Energy Spin: Alternative Energy Blog for Investors-Served Daily. You can find the articles mentioned above there.

Francesco DeParis

Posted by Francesco DeParis | March 28, 2007 7:41 AM

I think immigration works just fine without water.

i'm not sure i agree with this, either...

Posted by infrequent | March 28, 2007 8:20 AM

The major use of corn isn't as human food, at least not directly. Its main competitive use is animal feed and industrial products, some of which are eaten (HFCS) and some of which aren't (plastics). Ethanol is another form of price support for corn, but isn't impacting the food supply much. More corn is being grown for food than at any time in history already. It's just a question of WHAT KIND OF food.

Mexicans may have a right to be annoyed at price irregularities in corn, but that has way more to do with the widespread conversion of Mexican agriculture to wheat and especially beef, and their own hopelessly screwed-up price support system, not ethanol-growing in Iowa.

Boy, if you want an earful, ask an Iowan about ethanol from corn. Even the most devout Christian there rates it slightly higher than Jesus. They think ethanol is going to save their souls. What they should be worrying about, though, is the fact that most of their state is now polluting the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico; modern corn-growing techniques are extremely damaging to the land (petroleum-based fertilizer + petroleum-based pesticide washed into the Mississippi with the entire contents of their aquifier = Death Zone downstream).

Posted by Fnarf | March 28, 2007 9:30 AM

Ethanol is another form of price support for corn, but isn't impacting the food supply much.

Not now it's not, but imagine if every car ran on the stuff. I would also prefer not to destroy the rest of the rainforest for the production of sugar ethanol.

Posted by keshmeshi | March 28, 2007 11:05 AM

We need cars that can run on high fructose corn syrup, or maybe transfats.

Where are there E85 stations in Seattle?

Posted by him | March 28, 2007 11:42 AM

"Boy, if you want an earful, ask an Iowan about ethanol from corn."

HI-YO! *ba dum dum*

Posted by laterite | March 28, 2007 12:20 PM

Wow, a complete moritorium on development of Biofuels for five years? Talk about tossing out the baby with the bathwater. There are plenty of options of biofuels to be generated from non-food plant sources, even ones which won't steal farmland from food production. The argument against deforestation is a valid one, but it is possible to have biofuels without deforestation. Regulation would seem to be a better approach than banning.

Posted by boyd main | March 28, 2007 12:29 PM

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