San Francisco -- Last week, the Ford Motor Company joined the parade of stunningly hypocritical auto manufacturers by announcing that it was abandoning its goal of selling 250,000 hybrid vehicles per year by the end of the decade. Instead, Ford joined other automakers in promising to make 2 million flexible fuel vehicles. "In a joint letter sent Wednesday to members of Congress, General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG announced a new promise to double annual production of vehicles that run on alternative fuels, to 2 million per year." Congress promptly responded to the announcement by refusing, once again, to increase fuel economy standards.
But the auto industry knows that making two million "flexible-fuelled vehicles" won't dent our dependence on oil. First, the "alternative fuel" they are touting is a mix of gasoline and ethanol called E85, because it is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Regular cars can, and often do, burn ethanol-gasoline mixes that are up to 10 percent ethanol already -- so the real difference with E85 sounds like it might be an impressive 75 percent.
But the reality is far different. First, it takes a fair amount of fossil fuels to make ethanol -- diesel fuel for tractors to grow the corn and transport it, natural gas to make fertilizer for it, and gas or (worse) coal to distill it. But this doesn't matter so much, because 99 percent of these flexible fuel vehicles never see a drop of E85 but run on gas instead. That's according to a March 2002 study by the Bush Administration.
Since there are fewer than 700 gas stations selling E85, out of 176,000 stations in the U.S., these flexible fuel vehicles will mainly burn the same gasoline that the rest of the fleet does. For example, within 25 miles of my home there are NO gas stations selling E85 to the public! So, the actual savings from this big new auto industry commitment will certainly be trivial at best. Unfortunately, it gets worse.
The auto industry gets bogus fuel economy "credits" for selling flexible fuel vehicles, as if these vehicles were actually all burning ethanol-based fuel. As a result, U.S. gas consumption is actually going to go UP as a result of the auto industry's latest maneuver. The Bush Administration's study estimated that the combination of the fuel economy loophole and failure of 99 percent of the flexible fuel vehicles to use E85 would result in an increase in U.S. oil dependence of 17 billion gallons by 2008. On the other hand, we could easily reduce consumption by 50 percent by using more-efficient vehicle technology, the solution that Congress -- and the auto industry -- just rejected.
Again, William Clay Ford and the rest of the auto know these numbers. This is not something someone just dug out. They don't care.
If we really want to kick our oil addiction, we're going to have to do it from the grass-roots up. That's why the Sierra Club has just launched "Smart Energy Summer" -- a campaign to connect Americans with the real solutions to our energy and global warming problems -- ones that our leaders know about, but just won't embrace.