Cost and supply questions stalk hype on ethanol

Bob Tippee

"For years, our nation's rolling farm fields have filled America's breadbaskets," said US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson in a Sept. 7 press statement introducing regulations on renewable fuel standards. "Now, by helping meet President Bush's renewable energy goals, these same fields are filling America's gas tanks."

According to EPA, the renewable fuels program will reduce petroleum use by 2.3-3.9 billion gal/year by 2012, when the statutory mandate for renewable fuel sold with gasoline reaches its top level of 7.5 billion gal/year.

EPA estimates that the displaced petroleum will represent 1.3-3.6% of projected consumption. That's not exactly "filling America's gas tanks."

But inflated expectations are woven into the politics of ethanol, the main renewable fuel, so who will quibble? Besides, those rolling hills in EPA's rhapsody will not only will "reduce foreign oil dependency" but also cut emissions of greenhouse gases. They also will boost emissions of ozone ingredients, a disadvantage mentioned in a fact sheet accompanying EPA's statement but no doubt considered off-message.

Inevitably, ethanol hype collides with reality.

An article entitled "The ethanol myth" on, the web site of Consumer Reports magazine, has little praise for 85-15 ethanol-gasoline blends (E85) and the flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) designed to run on them.

CR tested a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe FFV and interviewed more than 50 "experts on ethanol."

It found fuel economy of the Tahoe to be 27% lower with E85 than with gasoline and noted that the fuel is more expensive than gasoline on an energy-equivalent basis.

Furthermore, E85 remains hard to find outside the upper Midwest. And the article notes that the push for sales of vehicles able to burn E85 comes from the fuel-economy credits automakers receive for FFVs, which tend to be large fuel-guzzlers. Because many FFVs might never use much E85, the push for them will indirectly boost consumption of gasoline.

CR said the Tahoe performed well in an emissions test when fueled with E85. But it expressed doubt that "the government's support of FFVs is really helping the US achieve energy independence."

It didn't say anything about rolling fields or breadbaskets.

(Online Sept. 8, 2006; author's e-mail:

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