Ethanol versus Fuel Economy: The False Debate

The automakers met with President Bush again last week, and did not resolve (or apparently even address) their differences over the 4% per year improvement in fuel economy that is a key element of the President’s plan to reduce gasoline consumption 20% by 2017. They did, however, renew their commitment to the Dukes of Hazzard’s favorite corn derivative—ethanol.

At present the vast majority of the 6 million “flexible” fuel vehicles on the road burn gasoline like the other 230 million light vehicles. Why, you might ask, do we have so many when we clearly don’t have the ethanol infrastructure or supplies to fuel them? Because the automakers have long used them as a means to meet CAFE — if they make enough flex fuel vehicles their CAFE requirement is lower by 1.2 miles per gallon, whether the vehicles actually use ethanol or not. Now the automakers are using flex fuel vehicles as a means to divert policy makers’ attention away from increased CAFE.

Myriad challenges that lie ahead for alternative fuels, not the least of which the freight train of subsidies for corn ethanol now being railroaded through Congress. Many researchers doubt that corn ethanol will ever be more than a means to provide more than corporate welfare to big agriculture. Substantial research proves cellulosic ethanol (derived from wood chips, brush grass and other organic materials) is the way to go for economic and environmental reasons.

But to argue alternative fuels versus fuel economy improvements is to engage in a false debate. Each could continue to be cynically manipulated to support different and incompatible policy goals (corporate welfare for corn state firms and fig leaves for automakers). And to pursue one without the other would be foolhardy. It takes more ethanol than gas to travel a mile, and without fuel economy, there are not enough acres of land to grow corn or brush grass to fuel our transportation needs. Congress should rise above the argument and treat cellulosic ethanol (incentives and research support) and fuel economy (standards and incentives) as complementary tools they can use to achieve a common policy goal—reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If the false debate distracts attention from the difficult policy task of aiming both fuel economy and ethanol at the same target, then by 2017 we will be burning more gasoline, emitting more greenhouse gases, and cornbread stuffing will cost too much to be part of the average American family’s Thanksgiving feast.

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  • Michael

    Ethanol is a Joke. I have never supported its use from day one…and I feel (know) the automakers are using it as a loophole to the isle of laziness.

    Its unfortunate that people actually listen and beleive in to their false claims of helping the environment, even though there is so few E-85 stations, and so many “flex-fuel” vehicles.

    Many of these “Flex-Fuel” vehicles may never see a drop of E-85 in their tank.

  • Max

    Even my teacher said it wasn’t a hoax! Now I have something to prove her wrong!!

  • CLD

    I think everyone is missing the point. The article does not say ‘ethanol is a joke’ or a ‘hoax’. It says that the debate must center on policies that can promote alternative fuels AND promote fuel economy. (Quite frankly, though, I don’t understand this antipathy towards Midwestern farmers and their ‘freight train of subsidies’. Have any of you ever even been to the Midwest? Where are these fat cat corn mullahs you seem to think exist? ADM and Cargill notwithstanding, the majority of farms in the cornbelt are still run by honest, hardworking men and women who live crop-to-crop, year-to-year. I’d much rather be giving subsidies to these people to keep their farms afloat long enough to make a profit than continue subsidizing third-world strongmen with an unabashed hatred for America, and the oil capital to do something about it.)

    The current crop of flex-fuel vehicles, even if they are fueled by E85, are not going to solve America’s old dependency problem. Even if you take the most optimistic energy output to input figure for ethanol (1.31:1 by Argonne National Labs), E85 is still going to give you about 73% of the energy output per gallon of 85-octane gasoline. If the energy input comes from foreign petroleum, that means your still about 4.5% in arrears in terms of petroleum usage than if you were to burn the gasoline instead.

    E85, however, has one saving grace: it’s 110 octane rating. Swapping gasoline for E85 in, say, a 5.3-L Vortec 5300 V8 ain’t gonna save any petroleum. If, however, you replace that 5.3-L V8 with a high-compression 3-L V6 running E85, you might just reach parity with the V8 in fuel economy terms with minimal loss in performance. That’s the route that needs to be taken. Alternative fuels AND fuel economy.

  • Michael

    Agreed with you partially, but I think biodiesel is a much better route.

    I feel that E-85 has so many negatives that outweigh its positives.

    By the way, I am from the midwest.

  • Gerald F. Shields Jr.

    The money goes to American Farmers mostly and not Big Oil. Other than that, Ethanol is less fuel efficient than gas, would require that vehicles be optimized to get the best efficiency from it’s high octane rating, would require that auto parts be replaced because of it’s corrosiveness and you end up going to the gas station more without the optimization . . . in other words, perfect for GM and Ford. Then you have to worry about the rise in corn prices and the subsequent rises in some foods due to the use of corn syrup and other preservatives.

    This is why Fuel Economy must be stressed in order to lessen our dependence on BOTH oil and the new, growing dependence on Ethanol.

  • Charles

    First a disclaimer, I am a software guy, not hardware.

    If I remember correctly E85 has a lower energy density then gasoline, but the mixture with air is so much richer, that E85 gets more energy to the engine. So if engines were optimized for E85 there size and weight would be less then a pure gasoline engine. With E85 much higher octane rating, more efficient higher compression engines could be used.

    So please, Ford or GM, please make an engine that has a very long stroke and intake valves that can be held open during a lot of the compression stroke to make an engine with effective variable displacement, variable compression and the efficiency of an Atkinson cycle ICE.

  • Henry
    On page 23 – the million dollar FCX fuel cell prototype doesn’t even match the CNG Prius in fuel efficiency.
    It takes 3.5 KG of CNG per KG of Hydrogen.
    For more info on this car go to
    For more info on Hydorgen’s energy loss calculation go to

  • Norfus Humperdink

    I believe ethanol does is much better for the environment than gas. Using it may slim your wallet, but hey your helping the environment

  • Muffassa Pendalbrook

    Fossil fuels are wrecking our environment and one of the many weapons we have to fight back with is ethanol. Ethanol is the answer to our prayers in reducing emmisions.

  • Ira

    I run ethanol only because I can buy it fifty cents a gallon cheaper than mid grade gasoline. I have to burn a little more of it but my cost per mile is lower. that is the ONLY determining factor is the cost per mile.

  • will

    I think that there should be more ehanol used becasue it will help the inviroment. We need to stop depending on the use of foregien oil. Even other alternative fules should start being used.

  • joe mama

    fossil fuels are bad for the invroment and they need to stop useing them. Alternative fuels are better becasue it will stop global warming.

  • Ben

    In a standard engine using E-85, yes there is less power due to the less explosive properties to E-85. On the other hand forced induced engines see a higher net power benefit to E-85 due to its higher octane rating.

    I do agree with the posts a few above that the auto manufacturers are abusing the CAFE. Mainly GM. They are still to this very day using push rod engines. Push rod engines are not efficient and unless using a small block modified get poor performance. But since they can be modified out to retrofit E-85, they still get away with using it. A pushrod-propelled car will never see 40mpg.

    Not to neglect that the domestic auto manufacturers thought nothing of hybrid vehicles, until recently now that Toyota is seeing quite a bit of profit in them. On the flip side, the import manufacturers laughed at E-85.

  • bob

    seems to me big oil is controlling our govt and our lives. we pay way too much for gas , while the oil companies profits soar. meanwhile our oil baron president is spending billions of dollars on a phony war and keeping us hooked on oil @ any cost.
    it’s time the american people spoke up . even if it means short term higher prices and sacrifice we need to get off the oil teat . we need some leadership with vision and not sleeping with big oil.

  • Anonymous

    I run ethanol only when I can’t get the 100% gasoline. I get much better gas millage with 100% gasoline, so it more than makes up the difference in cost of the 10 cents per gallon I have been paying. Also, the lawnmowers and chain saws and weed eaters and motorcycle I use all ask for NO Ethanol. This Ethanol is just a way to pad the farmers pocketbook, and it is really driving up the cost of food from the cereal to the beef and pork we see on our tables. To me it is just another example of Government run amok. The EPA is totally out of control and needs to be shut down by congress until they (congress) can make some sensible guidelines and controls that you and I can control through our congress, not some uncontrolable agency who seems to be answering to NO-ONE.