Commentary

Oil is known by many names, but seldom has it been referred to as the “magic bullet” that solves the world’s energy needs.

Petroleum is so energy dense, plentiful and relatively cheap, the industrialized world has become addicted to it. But that does not make it magical. Every price hike, ecological disaster and flare-up in the Middle East reminds us of its drawbacks.

Why then must every proponent of an alternative fuel warn that (fill-in-the-blank) is not a “magic bullet.” Whatever fuel it is, it does not have to be supernatural. It just has to keep improving its desirability while oil’s business case deteriorates.

Executives from major U.S., European and Asian auto makers speaking at the recent SAE World Congress agree the internal-combustion engine will be the dominant powertrain for the next 15 years or more. They also agree ICEs must continue to downsize and lose cylinder counts in order to meet new efficiency standards.

But as a fresh round of stringent new rules for fuel economy and carbon-dioxide emissions looms on the horizon after 2016, the world’s auto makers increasingly are choosing divergent paths for meeting those standards in the U.S., especially in the area of alternative fuels.

When the subject turns to diesels, biofuels and hydrogen-powered fuel cells, there is clear disagreement. The issue of making engines capable of burning E85 ethanol, a mixture of 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol, is especially contentious.

The Detroit Three, which sell a higher percentage of thirsty fullsize pickups and SUVs than foreign-based competitors, earn important fuel-economy credits from the Environmental Protection Agency to build vehicles that are E85 compatible, even though there are only a few thousand E85 pumps scattered around the U.S.

Critics say ethanol represents a lavish subsidy for agriculture and is a gift to the politically powerful corn lobby in Washington. Proponents argue it is a powerful home-grown alternative to foreign oil that is becoming more attractive every day as gasoline prices soar.

E85 also is easy to integrate into the current U.S. refueling infrastructure, unlike gaseous fuels such as natural gas or hydrogen. Whatever the case, most foreign-based auto makers are not keen on E85.

But the only major industrialized country ever to break its oil addiction, Brazil, did so with ethanol. Brazil’s model can’t easily be replicated because it produces ethanol from sugarcane in a process far more efficient than for corn-based ethanol.

Lost in the debate over corn vs. sugarcane is the fact the rapid introduction of flexible-fuel vehicles in Brazil beginning in 2003 was the real reason the country shifted away from gasoline.

Flex-fuel cars and trucks allow consumers to choose between alcohol and gasoline fuels on a daily basis. Choice creates competition and drives down prices at the pump.

Choice is good. And the more choices, the better, whether E85, diesel, compressed natural gas, electricity or hydrogen. There should be no apologies for any of them.

The world does not need a new fuel that is a magic bullet. It just needs more bullets.

dwinter@wardsauto.com