The United States has pledged to kick the oil habit before. But this time we mean it. Better yet, we have a solution that doesn’t require any of that furrin’ hybrid and diesel technology: E85. Produced from corn and other products grown in good old American soil, this 85 percent ethanol blend enables American-as-apple-pie small block V8s to burn less gasoline than a Prius. If every car, truck, and SUV were E85 now, why we could tell the Arabs to shove it! So all good Americans should buy an E85-capable full-sized SUV TODAY! Actually, on second thought, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to “go yellow.”
Brazil, poster child of the E85 movement, has farmed its way to energy independence. But the same solution won’t work so easily for the US. For one thing, Brazil produces ethanol from sugar cane, a much cheaper foodstuff than corn or anything else we can grow in the decidedly non-tropical Midwest. Perhaps global warming will lend a hand? In the meantime, every ethanol booster not wedded to corn interests cannot stop talking about switchgrass. Research indicates that an acre of panicum virgatum might yield three times as much ethanol as an acre of zea mays. But even if switchgrass proves a fruitful source of ethanol, its potential impact on US energy policy is minimal.
Americans are gas hogs. While 186 million Brazilians burn the equivalent of about 10 billion gallons of gasoline each year (40 percent of it ethanol), 296 million Americans burn 150 billion gallons of gasoline each year (3 percent of it ethanol). In other words, if America really wants to be like Brazil, we should cut gas consumption use by 90 percent. (Hint: not many Brazilians drive full-size SUVs.) Otherwise, we’ll need ten times as much ethanol as Brazil to match the Brazilian fuel mix.
Converting the entire U.S. vehicle fleet to E85 would require about twenty times as much ethanol as Brazil currently produces for domestic consumption. Guess what? America is already producing as much ethanol as Brazil, and will soon pass them to become the world’s largest ethanol producer.
To achieve full gasoline self-sufficiency, we could convert 140 million acres of farmland to switchgrass. That’s about twice the acreage currently devoted to corn and a landmass nearly the size of Texas. Once we use American coal to produce the electricity needed to convert the result to ethanol, we’re there! Or not. Devoting so much American soil to ethanol would send farmland and food prices soaring. This will make American farmers very happy, and anyone who has to buy food unhappy. We might have to starve millions to do it, but we’ll be able to feed our SUVs without foreign oil!
Alternatively, we could import ethanol. If Corn Belt congressmen would agree to cut the protective tariff, Brazil would gladly increase sugarcane production to help meet our needs. Brazil has plenty of space for more cane fields. What good does so much rain forest do anyone, anyway? No matter which route is chosen, this huge ethanol production expansion won’t– can’t– happen overnight. As part of his energy less dependence policy, President Bush has decreed that American ethanol production must double by 2012. If US gasoline consumption stops growing, by that date all US gas could contain five percent ethanol. Maintain this torrid growth rate, and by 2018, all American gas could contain ten percent ethanol.
Guess what? Virtually all vehicles on the road today can already burn ten percent ethanol, commonly known as “gasohol.” In other words, existing cars can probably use all of the ethanol we can produce through at least 2018. So why do we need new, E85-capable vehicles and new E85 pipelines and pumps in 2006? Well, they do seem to make Corn Belt congressmen and their constituents happy. They help GM deflect criticism. And, perhaps best of all, an E85 Tahoe gets a CAFE rating of 33.3 miles per gallon. You see, this rating is calculated based on the very shaky assumption that E85 (only 15 percent of which is gasoline) will be used half the time. As a result, GM can sell more V8-powered vehicles without incurring fines. Without this loophole, it would have to actually sell more fuel efficient vehicles if it didn’t want to pay up.
Of course, GM didn’t create this incentive. It’s just intelligently reacting to it. Congress, pressured by Corn Belt people and industries, created the incentive. But why does E85 make the Corn Belt so happy? Why not simply mandate more gasohol, which can be sold everywhere and used by everyone today? I have no idea. For some reason, no one seems to be talking about this possibility. Clearly, we should.
Michael Karesh operates www.truedelta.com, a vehicle reliability and price comparison website.