If are going to buy a new car in 2017, chances are you’ll be able to fuel it with something other than petroleum — that is, if the Open Fuel Standard Act makes it through Congress. The bill aims to increase the percentage of passenger vehicles that are capable of running on alternative car fuels, the purpose being to create more viable market competition with conventional gasoline and reduce dependence on foreign oil. (Read more about OFSA here).
The act would require: at least 50 percent of vehicles manufactured in 2014 fleets, at least 80 percent in 2016 fleets, and at least 95 percent in 2017 fleets be capable of using something other than petroleum. Alternatives can include biodiesel, compressed natural gas, hydrogen, electricity, or alcohol fuels (such as ethanol). However, the bill does not require people to actually fill their cars with these fuels, nor does it require manufacturers to produce a variety of vehicles that use different fuels (e.g. the 2014 fleets produced by Ford might only have ethanol capabilities).
When was the last time you stopped at a gas station and saw somebody filling up with hydrogen or biodiesel? Why and how are people going to be able to use the alternative capabilities of their vehicles if it is not convenient to do so? Currently, the most common alternative fuel source is ethanol — and only in corn-rich Midwestern states is it readily available at filling stations. Granted, part of the bill’s initiative is to encourage the proliferation of these non-petroleum fuel sources — but that’s not going to happen in the next 2-3 years.
It seems as if the most significant result of the Open Fuel Standard Act will be an increase in ethanol consumption. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Ethanol is an alcohol fuel produced from corn. The United States has certainly proven that it can produce a massive quantities of corn on its own (40 percent of global corn yield comes from the U.S., up to 335 million tons per year) — we won’t need OPEC to get our ethanol.
Ethanol is also a cleaner fuel; burning it spews less greenhouse gases and harmful pollutants than traditional gasolines. Using more ethanol and less petroleum may be a way to reduce emissions.
But ethanol has its share of problems. Ethanol contains significantly less energy per gallon than does gasoline (one gallon of ethanol equals roughly two thirds of the energy of a gallon of gasoline). Less energy means worse gas mileage and more trips to the filling station. It is also quite energy intensive to produce ethanol — a gallon of ethanol contains only 38 percent more energy than the energy required to produce that gallon (namely, fossil fuels). More ethanol means more corn which means more corn agriculture (which is a controversial issue in itself. Read more about U.S. corn here).
This kind of large-scale agriculture depends not only on a large input of fossil fuel, but large amounts of land and water as well. By using more arable land to grow fuel for our vehicles, we may be depleting our supply of fresh water and healthy soil and squandering an opportunity to grow food for humans (instead of food for cars).
So let’s step back and ask ourselves: Do we have the resources to responsibly produce enough ethanol to sate the nation’s appetite for gasoline? Is the Open Fuel Standard Act of 2011 the best way to move toward alternative car fuels?