Consumer Report Mag debunks the "ethanol myth"

Tue, 2006-09-19 11:25Kevin Grandia
Kevin Grandia's picture

Consumer Report Mag debunks the "ethanol myth"

We have had some requests recently from DeSmog readers for more information on ethanol fuel and its effect on climate change, energy consumption etc. We stumbled across a great an in-depth analysis of the economic and environmental viability of ethanol fuel, or E85, in this month's edition of Consumer Reports magazine. The article debunks the myth that ethanol fuel will do much of anything to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and goes further to make the argument that E85 may be adding to overall emissions. The arguments they make are interesting and  relevant considering that much of the US government's self-proclaimed “action” on climate change has come in the form of ethanol fuel alternatives.

As usual a large portion of the piece is protected behind the “subscriber only” section, which is too bad because they delve way into the issue of ethanol-fueled cars, so called Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFV's) and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard.  For those who don't pick up the magazine, here is quick overview.

CAFE, FFV's, SUV's and the Hummer
According to Consumer Reports: “Government support for Flexible-Fuel Engines, which can run on E85, is indirectly causing more gasoline consumption than less.” It also appears to be giving the auto-industry a nice green-wash.

The US automoblie industry is regulated by the average fuel economy of its entire fleet under the 1988 Alternative Motor Fuels Act. Under the Act, automakers must meet a Corporate Average Fuel Economy  (CAFE) standard through the use of alcohol or natural gas based fuel alternatives. CAFE encourages the use of alternative fuels by dictating the minimum miles per gallon figure for an automaker'e entire fleet, which is 27.5 for cars and 21.6 for light trucks. So the idea is, that in order for a company like GM to produce the Hummer, they must produce enough small, fuel efficient cars and trucks with Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV) engines to offset the horrendous fuel consumption of their biggest beast. If GM were to not offset the Hummer and exceed CAFE guidlines they would be subject to a fine.

Here's where the FFV car offers a great incentive to automakers without ever having any effect on overall fuel consumption and, in turn, no reduction on green house gas emissions. The FFV, which can run on either conventional gasoline or ethanol, is assumed under the CAFE formula to run 50% of the time on ethanol. For example, under the CAFE formula a run-of-the mill 2007 Tahoe truck would recieve a CAFE rating of 21 miles-per-gallon, but a 2007 Tahoe truck with an FFV engine would be rated at 35 mpg. The catch is that, according to Consumer Reports, there is very little ethanol fuel actually available in the US, so most FFV engines (which only cost $200 more to make than a conventional engine) will never run on ethanol fuel.

According to Consumer Reports and the Union of Concerned Scientists, in the first half of 2005, the FFV credits accrued by Detroit automobile producers allowed the automoblie industry to avoid $1.6 billion in fines they would have recieved for exceeding the maximum allowable. In other words, $1.6 billion in fines are avoided for exceeding allowable fuel consumption limits by making the incorrect, and Hummer friendly, assumption that FFV vehicles have an impact on overall fossil fuel consumption.

So if you take this Consumer Reports investigation to heart (which we never encourage) it would seem that there is a long way before ethanol fuel becomes the answer to our climate change woes. In the meantime, the Terence Corcorans of the world can take heart that ethanol-friendly engines are helping keep the Hummer on the road and the automakers from taking an real action to reduce our reliance on carbon emitting fossil fuel.



As a Canadian who spends a great deal of (paid) time on the ethanol issue let me offer a few thoughts.

1.  The fact that E85 gets less mileage isn't exactly kept secret, so I'm not sure it's newsworthy in the context of the CR article. To put it bluntly, having a bunch of CR technicians go out and test the fuel economy of vehicles running on E85 and find out that it's 25-35% lower than gasoline is about as earth shattering as having ten people walk outside and observe that the sky is in fact blue.  There is plenty of literature publicly available from the EPA and other organizations that have studied ethanol in gasoline (google "fuel economy and ethanol") so it isn't clear what value these tests add.

 2. I completely agree with the criticism of the CAFE loophole/incentive that is given to E85 vehicles and think it is far too generous.  Having said that, I don't think that such an incentive is necessarily a bad idea in practice, from a policy perspective because it helps address the chicken-and-egg problem that is common to all alternative fuel strategies (e.g., hydrogen, plug-in stations for electric, etc); namely, why would car manufacturers spend the extra $$ making a vehicle flex-fuel capable when there isn't any consumer demand for it? And how can there be any consumer demand for it when there aren't any retail stations selling E85? And why would there be any stations selling E85 when there isn't any consumer demand for see what i mean.

3.  The CR article claims that the GHG benefits of ethanol are negligible.  Not surprising given that they are quoting Patzek.  Now I'm sure you're familiar with the GW debate.  Quoting Patzek on ethanol lifecycle/GHG analyses is akin to quoting Richard Lindzen or Pat Michaels (ok maybe not quite that bad).  The point is that his studies (which have been co-authored with David Pimental) are outliers in the context of the broader research community on this subject, but the amount of air time they get is way out of proportion -- all in the name of journalistic balance -- kinda like how Bill Gray gets so much airtime on the hurricanes/AGW issue. Most studies show that corn-based ethanol has a positive energy balance and reduces GHGs on a lifecycle-basis by 15-30%.  Two other points on this: 1) the energy balance in Canada is likely better because our ethanol plants run on natural gas and not coal; and 2) the GHG benefits will surely increase in the future and agricultural and ethanol production technologies improve.  You wouldn’t know this judging from the Patzek/Pimental studies, which use very dated data.  For a good summary of the issue check out the IEA’s “Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective”.



Thanks for this Marlowe,

The DeSmog team will deinitely continue to post new information on ethanol, as it seems to be a great interest to our readers.