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Thursday, April 12, 2007

B10 FU3L

How green is my tank?

Unless automakers accept the need for serious action on fuel economy in addition to lower-carbon fuels, biofuels will remain a dangerous distraction.

by Harriet Williams

The Ecologist (March 2007)

'Live Green, Go Yellow' exhorts a multimillion-dollar ad campaign from General Motors (GM), the world's largest automaker, promoting flexible fuel cars capable of running on blends of up to 85 per cent ethanol, mainly derived from corn. 'GM FlexFuel vehicles lead the way to a cleaner, less oil-dependent future, when they run on renewable, US grown fuel. Join the ride!'

Global bioethanol production more than doubled between 2000 and 2005 to 36 billion litres, with Brazilian sugar cane and US corn together accounting for more than eighty per cent of this total. Production of biodiesel, starting from a much smaller base, expanded fourfold to nearly four billion litres, nine-tenths of it produced in the EU. Countries as varied as Colombia, Japan, Canada, South Africa and the Philippines are contemplating mandatory biofuel blends for their auto fleets. The world's eyes are focused enviously on Brazil, nicknamed the Saudi Arabia of biofuel, where bioethanol accounts for forty per cent of the fuel used by the country's cars and avoids the need for roughly $69 billion a year in oil imports.

Despite all this activity, in 2005 ethanol powered only 0.8 per cent of the distance travelled by the world's auto fleet. If and when this proportion increases, the physical availability of biofuel will be only one factor - future trends in fuel economy of individual vehicles and in the total mileage people travel are equally important.

GM and the other Big Three US automakers, Ford and Daimler Chrysler, have all vowed to double production of flex-fuel vehicles by 2010. Officially, car-makers like the yellow stuff because it offers the prospect of boosting energy security - a hot topic in the USA - and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which strikes chords in Europe.

Unofficially, biofuels offer automakers a convenient way out of any number of tricky corners. Ten per cent of the world's oil is burnt on US roads - one in every two barrels it consumes - and automakers were clearly in the frame when President Bush decried the country's 'addiction to oil' and its unpleasant side-effects, which include spending half a million dollars every minute on petroleum imports. High oil prices and the war in Iraq have fuelled criticism of the Big Three for producing gas-guzzling vehicles, while nimbler Asian rivals such as Toyota and Honda increase market share with less fuel-hungry technologies such as hybrid engines.

Then there is all the bad press over climate change. Road transport already accounts for around one quarter of carbon emissions in most developed countries, a figure set to grow as car use increases relative to other energy-hungry sectors that are reining in their emissions.

An obvious fix for these ills - increasing the mileage per gallon travelled by the average car - has conspicuously failed to materialise. And yet a ten miles per gallon increase in the average fuel economy of US cars, for instance, would reduce oil demand by 3.5 million barrels a day. By contrast, even if the USA diverted its entire corn yield to ethanol, it would only displace 1.35 million barrels, or fifteen per cent, of the nine million barrels (and rising) consumed by US cars every day.

Instead, the trend for bigger, more powerful vehicles has cancelled out a series of impressive efficiency gains. The average weight of new US cars has increased 24 per cent between 1981 and 2001, with a 93 per cent increase in horsepower over the same period. All this means that the average fuel economy for the whole fleet is an oil-thirsty 19.6 miles per gallon - worse than that of the Model T Ford launched in 1908. The reason is simple: profit margins are highest on large, fast cars, and automakers have deliberately stoked consumer demand for these vehicles. A 2006 Friends of the Earth report on car advertising in the UK, for instance, found that nearly two thirds of adverts were for vehicles in the two most polluting categories.

Political failures

Car-makers' dismal record on improving fuel economy has led to a clutch of initiatives and agreements on fuel economy action on both sides of the Atlantic, which the industry is determined to fight off.

In the USA, the federal fuel economy standard for new cars has stalled at 27.5 miles per gallon since the mid-1980s, and automakers have filed a legal challenge against Californian proposals mandating lower carbon emissions. Over the years, the state of California has helped set the agenda for US environmental politics and, with another thirteen states lined up to adopt the proposals, and California suing automakers for contributing to global warming, car manufacturers are fearful that the game may finally be up.

In Europe, policymakers are smarting from the failure of a high-profile voluntary agreement that saw automakers pledge to reduce carbon emissions, whose success rested upon efficiency gains through vehicle technologies. The average new European car now emits a hefty 162 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre, a far cry from the 140 grams target agreed for 2008.

It isn't as if 140 grams or less is unrealistic - in fact, these cars are already a commercial reality. The Toyota Prius - a large, family car - produces just over lOO grams per kilometre, and in the UK alone more than thirty other models that produce emissions of less than 120 grams are on sale.

However, the fact is that binding targets for fuel economy are a bete noire for the auto industry, which claims that there are cheaper, simpler ways to reduce auto emissions than through vehicle efficiency. Through bad maths or bad faith, the auto industry has consistently exaggerated the compliance costs associated with new regulation enacted on safety or environmental grounds. For instance, it estimated that catalytic converters would cost up to GBP 600 per vehicle. The real cost worked out around GBP 50.

Whatever the truth of vehicle technology - and remember that the energy-hungry air-con systems and heated seats that shift premium cars today were partly made possible by engine-efficiency gains - it suits automakers to push for other options. Cleaner fuels, rather than leaner vehicles, are far more consistent with the industry's bottom line, allowing automakers to continue to churn out vehicles that make the biggest profits, namely gas-guzzling luxury cars and SUVs.

Furthermore, those profits are artificially propped up by import tariffs and other subsidies that protect biofuel producers in both the US and EU markets. Yet there is also a much-overlooked cost to the consumer. High biofuel blends may be competitively priced at the pumps, but the lower energy content of ethanol means that motorists need 1.5 gallons to drive the same distance they can on a gallon of petroleum.

All the ugly realities that tarnish today's biofuels - low land availability, low efficiency and high cost - are supposed to evaporate with the advent of the much-vaunted second-generation biofuels, in which plant wastes are literally pressed, digested and genetically manipulated into service as high-energy fuels, with massive carbon savings to boot. But a number of technological breakthroughs are needed to make cellulosic ethanol cost-effective, and the consensus is that large-scale deployment is at least ten years away.

Even if vast quantities of clean, sustainable and cheap biofuel were there for the taking, there is the question of putting it in the tank. All that refining, processing and distribution requires an 'industrial-scale infrastructure', in the parlance of the oil industry, and so far that industry has shown little interest in cultivating a competitor to its number one product, petroleum, to which operating systems are geared. The great irony of GM's love affair with flex-fuelled vehicles is that only a fraction of them will ever run on a high-ethanol blend - E85 is currently available at less than 600 of America's 170,000 service stations.

Meanwhile, the global car pool continues to grow at a pace that far outstrips biofuels' limited ability to displace petroleum demand. The fleet is expected to double by 2020 to 1.2 billion cars, one for every 6.5 people. If all these cars are as fuel-intensive as those today, biofuels will struggle to become a significant proportion of the fuel mix, even if production volumes are ramped up. And if road transport continues burning oil at today's rate or higher, pretty soon we will be dipping into unconventional and environmentally devastating fossil fuels such as oil shales for petrol, whose much larger energy extraction bill will cancel out any greenhouse gas benefits accruing from modest biofuel blends.

Lobbying hard

The auto industry's political power should not be underestimated. For instance, in the USA, auto manufacturers and dealers together make up one of the biggest campaign donor groups in politics, accounting for more than $105 million in contributions to federal candidates and party committees since 1989. Around 75 per cent of those contributions have gone to Republicans. Contrast this with the lobbying & purchasing power of smaller groups promoting fuel economy, such as the Sierra Club, which is currently calling for fuel efficiency standards averaging at least forty miles per gallon for all vehicles within ten years. The Sierra Club has spent just $1.3 million lobbying government since 1997.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, since 2001 Congress has rejected at least five efforts to increase fuel economy standards. The most recent attempt, an amendment introduced by the Democratic senator for Illinois, Dick Durbin, to President Bush's 2005 energy bill, was defeated in June. The amendment would have increased efficiency standards for passenger vehicles to forty miles per gallon and to 27.5 miles per gallon for pickups and other non-passenger vehicles.

In the meantime, according to Energy Department data, petrol use in the USA increased from 332 million gallons a day in January 2001, to 380 million gallons a day during the first week of September 2005, a fourteen percent increase. In the EU also, fuel use is increasing. Compared with twelve million barrels a day in 2000, it is predicted to grow to 13.2 million barrels a day by 2020; 93 per cent of this increase is likely to be accounted for by transport.

Double standards

For automobile manufacturers, the promotion of biofuels is worthwhile because it absolves them of all responsibility for their products and heads off unwelcome policies on fuel economy. So far, this strategy is working pretty well. In the EU, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (Association des Constructeurs Europeens d'Automobiles, or ACEA) is vigorously promoting an 'integrated approach' to reducing vehicle emissions, which basically comprises passing on responsibility for auto emissions to motorists, road designers and national governments - anyone but the auto industry, in fact. 'It should not be, it cannot be the responsibility of the automotive industry alone', ACEA secretary general Ivan Hodac has said. One of ACEA's leading alternatives is, naturally, biofuels.

In his latest State of the Union address, President Bush made biofuel the centrepiece of his call to cut domestic petrol consumption twenty per cent by 2017. While Bush also speculated upon improving fuel economy, he was careful not to announce any specific mechanisms for doing so.

The US has already signed a blatant fuel economy loophole into law in the name of promoting biofuels. Under the so-called flexfuel discount, automakers pick up credits towards their federal fuel economy targets when they manufacture E85 - capable cars.
Car-makers churning out lots of these vehicles - the majority of which never use E85 - are in essence set a lower fuel economy standard. 'There's no way Detroit would be producing these cars if they weren't allowed to weaken miles per gallon standards in return', says Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming Programme.

Jos Dings, Director of The European Federation for Transport and Environment, is adamant that biofuels should be additional to action on technology, not a substitute. 'Carbon dioxide targets for new vehicles have to be met through car-related measures, not through fuel measures', he says. 'Anything that would suggest greenhouse gas savings from biofuels could count towards these targets is a double counting of efforts and a weakening of policies. That is unacceptable in a time when climate change and oil dependency concerns are more paramount that ever.'

The next two years will see the battle over fuel economy enter a crucial new phase. The EU will be taking decisions on what should replace the failed voluntary agreement, and the US courts will rule on whether or not California can take strong, independent action to reduce carbon emissions from road vehicles. Other countries will be watching, including China - the world's second largest auto market, which has already set fuel economy standards of its own.

Ultimately, we cannot expect to grow afresh each year sufficient fuel to replace the masses of fossil energy we currently mine to power cars. Biofuels only have a part to play under a scenario where greatly improved fuel economy reduces petrol demand to a level with which photosynthesis can compete. Unless automakers accept the need for serious action on fuel economy in addition to lower carbon fuels, biofuels will remain a dangerous distraction.


Harriet Williams is a freelance journalist and environmental consultant specialising in transport issues.

Bill Totten


  • Recently GM producer of gm fender cover and other automakers had announced that they are working on a plan to reduce C02 emissions in the coming years. This is a great news, that automakers finally doing something about emissions which contribute a great part on climate change. Aside from reducing hazardous emission car makers should also improve fuel mileage since gas prices continuously rises. It would really be great if car manufacturers would take this issues seriously and do their part.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:23 PM, April 14, 2007  

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