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 or not 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.