Ethanol ‘Flex Fuel’ No Solution for Climate—or Political Compromise

Car trouble - Thinkstock

Pollster Frank Luntz discussed climate policy Thursday night with Laura Ingraham on her Fox News program “The Ingraham Angle.” In the previous segment, Ingraham interviewed Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Patrick Michaels, who debunked the “existential threat” rhetoric permeating CNN’s 7-hour “Climate Crisis Town Hall” on Wednesday. Michaels and Ingraham observed that for progressives, climate change is a pretext for confiscating other people’s assets and running their lives.

Luntz, who in recent months has been advising Republicans to do something “measurable and meaningful” about climate change, unveiled a policy initiative he apparently believes has broad bipartisan appeal: boost the production and sale of E-85—motor fuel blended with up to 85 percent ethanol. He explained:

What we could do, and I’m hoping the President is watching tonight, there’s a gasoline, E-85, it’s ethanol. It’s voluntary. If our automotive companies make flex-fuel vehicles at a cost of less than $100 dollars per vehicle—and some people say there’s no cost at all—and we use flex fuel, it reduces our dependence [on], or eliminates it from, the Middle East.     

Ingraham interjected: “Corn? More and more giveaways to the corn growers?” Luntz replied:

No, it’s not just corn, it’s also natural gas. There are a number of different ways to make this fuel. And what’s amazing about it, in your opening you said that we are almost energy independent. Between now and election day, we can actually become energy independent if we move to E-85. Farmers have stood behind the President. They’ve taken the blunt of the trade agreement. We can make this change right now, have a positive impact on the economy, consumers will pay 50 cents less for gasoline, the air will be cleaner, the cars will run more efficiently; it works for everyone. This is a real solution without the craziness you saw from the Democrats.

Ingraham responded with all the seriousness Luntz’s proposal deserves: “Okay, you’re T-shirt would be F4F2: Frank for Flex Fuel. I got your T-Shirt. Alright, I’ve already branded you. Okay. Frank Luntz, the energy expert. Alright Frank, great to have you on tonight.”

Mr. Luntz is offering bad advice. First, environmental groups are not fans of ethanol, regarding it as a “dirty” fuel that destroys wildlife habitat, damages water quality, and, yes, contributes to climate change. No “climate crisis” activist would be mollified by a GOP-led E-85 campaign.

Second, the market for ethanol is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which, far from being voluntary, resembles a Soviet-style production quota. The RFS literally dictates how many billions of gallons of various types of biofuels shall be sold each year over a 15-year period regardless of what consumers actually want to buy.

Third, only a tiny fraction of U.S. natural gas—that derived from decomposing trash in landfills—qualifies as an ethanol feedstock under the RFS program.

Fourth, because the market for petroleum is global, with multiple alternative routes of delivery, dependence on oil imports has never been a bona fide national security threat. And with America leading the world in crude oil production, imports accounting for just 11 percent of U.S. consumption, and friendly democratic Canada providing 43 percent of our oil imports compared to just 9 percent from Saudi Arabia, ramping up ethanol production would provide no discernible “energy security” benefit.

Fifth, even if President Trump could order automakers to produce more flex-fuel vehicles (he can’t), most consumers would still shun E-85, for a very simple reason: poor fuel economy.

Ethanol has one-third less energy content by volume than gasoline, so a flex-fuel vehicle doesn’t go as far on a gallon of E-85 as it does on a gallon of gasoline. The per-gallon price of ethanol may be lower than gasoline, but usually it is not low enough to offset the fuel economy penalty. If you drive a flex fuel vehicle on E-85 rather than gasoline, you end up spending more to go the same distance. You also have to fill up more often.

At today’s gasoline and ethanol prices, the typical flex-fuel vehicle owner would have to spend up to $500 more annually to run the vehicle on E-85. The chart below is from the joint Department of Energy-Environmental Protection Agency website,