'Flex-Fuel' Concept Fails to Deliver on Potential

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You may be surprised to know that since the 1990s, American roads have been filled with cars capable of running on alternative fuel. These so called "flex-fuel" vehicles can burn either gasoline or ethanol — or almost any mixture of the two. The problem is, most drivers don't know their cars can do this, and the "flex-fuel" concept is backfiring.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

You may be surprised to know that American automakers have put millions of alternative-fuel cars on the roads since the 1990s. These so-called flex-fuel vehicles can burn either gasoline or ethanol or almost any mixture of the two. The problem is most drivers don't know that their cars can do this. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the flex-fuel program has backfired and is actually increasing oil consumption.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

When Seattle resident Elisa Davidson(ph) first bought her 2000 Ford Taurus, she had no idea it was a so-called flex-fuel car. She assumed it ran only on regular gas until a mechanic explained that she could also fill the tank with something called E85, essentially a fuel blend that's 85 percent ethanol, made from Midwestern corn. Davidson was thrilled at the prospect of kicking gasoline.

Ms. ELISA DAVIDSON: I'm not a big fan of how much of our foreign policy seems to be based ultimately on oil. So I was really excited about it.

KASTE: But then she found out there was no place for her to buy E85 in Washington state. Not a single gas station sells it to the general public, even though Davidson's flex-fuel Taurus is hardly alone.

(Soundbite of computer keypad)

KASTE: Mark Brady is a city employee who keeps a computer list of all the flex-fuel cars in the state.

Mr. MARK BRADY: There are something in the range of 40, 50,000 of these vehicles on the road.

KASTE: Fifty thousand flex-fuel vehicles in Washington state and not a drop of E85 to be had. The numbers are similar nationwide. There are an estimated five million flex-fuel vehicles but only about 500 E85 fuel stations and most of those in the corn belt. Brady, who runs the region's alternative fuels outreach program, says he often gets calls from flex-fuel car owners like Davidson.

Mr. BRADY: For the most part, it's just kind of, `Well, why can't I get it,' and they're upset, honestly, at first.

KASTE: He says some of them come up with wild conspiracy theories to explain the absence of E85, but he assumes it's just a matter of supply lagging behind demand. Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming project, takes a darker view. It's not so much a conspiracy, he says, as it is a cynical ploy.

Mr. DAN BECKER (Director, Global Warming Project, Sierra Club): The auto companies by merely producing the vehicle qualify for a loophole that allows them to produce more gas guzzlers.

KASTE: Becker says the industry is making these flex-fuel cars only because of a 1988 law. Under the law, if automakers build flex-fuel cars, they get special permission to make the rest of their cars a little less fuel efficient. It's their reward for building these alternative-fuel vehicles, even though the vehicles themselves rarely actually burn alternative fuel.

Mr. BECKER: This is a cynical effort by auto companies to evade the law that would reduce our oil dependence and global warming pollution.

KASTE: Because of this loophole, all of the cars we drive, flex-fuel or not, are allowed to consume more gas, two billion more gallons of gas next year according to government projections. That's about the same as putting an extra two million Hummers on the road, or to put it another way, it cancels out all the gas saved by Priuses and other hybrids 30 times over. This news comes as a shock to flex-fuel Taurus owner Elisa Davidson.

Ms. DAVIDSON: I don't know if it's deception, but it's kind of a cheap trick.

KASTE: Flex-fuel advocates insist the program does represent progress toward renewable energy. The director of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, Phil Lampert, calls the program a success and a failure.

Mr. PHIL LAMPERT (Director, National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition): It was a tremendous success in that before that, there were no alternative-fuel vehicles manufactured in this country. At the same time, it was a dismal failure because it did not address the issue of refueling.

KASTE: This successful failure has just got a new lease on life. The incentive law was due to expire, but in 2004, the Bush administration extended the program and Congress ratified that extension in the 2005 energy bill. Carmakers lobbied hard to keep the program going. Even though it lets them make cars that guzzle more gas, they say they support it for the sake of reducing Americans' gas consumption. Curt Magleby is a public policy manager at Ford.

Mr. CURT MAGLEBY (Public Policy Manager): Even today if you look at the five million ethanol-capable vehicles out there, if they were to be fueled on ethanol, if the infrastructure did exist for ethanol, that's equivalent to having more than 10 million hybrids on the road today.

KASTE: But that infrastructure does not yet exist. Ford says it's trying to encourage more gas stations to carry E85 and the energy bill offers a tax credit to stations that put in E85 pumps, but even the ethanol lobby admits that these efforts are not enough to bring E85 closer to most consumers. For the foreseeable future, every flex-fuel car sold will increase America's dependence on oil.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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