Like Solomon, the Environmental Protection Agency finally achieved the ultimate compromise and pleased nobody other than Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and the corn lobby.
The EPA approved selling fuel containing up to 15 percent ethanol for use in cars and trucks of model year 2007 and newer. The agency is still studying the effects of E15 on older (2001-2006) vehicles. Environmental and auto groups called the “split decision” a disaster. Most ethanol boosters cheered; some, like the Renewable Fuels Association, thought the limits were unjustified.
The auto industry claims that excessive amounts of ethanol can damage a car’s fuel system and engine if it’s not designed for flex-fuel use. (But that’s what EPA is now studying, guys.) Agricultural and food-producing groups believe there’s too much corn going into ethanol production now; more would raise the price of livestock and food, a ridiculous diversion of resources.
Will the ruling actually cut fuel use and get us off imported oil? Not really. Will it create confusion at gas stations, where new, specially labeled pumps will have to be installed (at about $20,000 per)? You bet. Are there potential liability issues for station owners who dispense the stuff? Oh yes.
So, in trying to deal with multiple and serious issues, the government pleased nobody but Grassley and a few others. Which doesn’t, however, negate the case for ethanol, though some think it’s a worse alternative than oil. It’s a complicated matter, but let’s look at the production and the consumption sides.
E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) can give very high-octane performance, but at the cost of poor fuel economy. It’s been used for years in racing, but you burn more of it (because of its lower energy content). So, even if it’s cheap, there’s a cost-benefit ratio at work.
It seems to me we will get to an efficient use of ethanol only with higher (and cleaner-burning) concentrations and a reduced production cost, and neither of these eventualities is likely. Burning corn-based ethanol in cars is clearly a very bad idea. Using cellulosic ethanol, made from switchgrass or sugarcane as has been done quite successfully in Brazil, could be the “silver bullet.”
But that would take a crash course, something that the U.S. hasn’t been very successful in undertaking since World War II. We are, however, good at splitting babies and baking half-loaves, and so it’s easy to predict more controversy to come over ethanol.
If you own a 2007 or older car, are you wary of using ethanol?