Positive is how Ford Motor Co. Vice President-Environmental and Safety Engineering Sue Cischke describes her recent meeting with Congress concerning renewable fuels.

The main thrust behind her visit to Washington was to support the Alternative Energy Refueling System Act, which calls for establishing a program to provide reimbursement for the installation of alternative energy refueling systems.

Under the bill, which was proposed by Sens. John Thune, R-SD, and Barack Obama, D-IL, gas station owners would receive a reimbursement of 30% of the cost (not to exceed $30,000) for the replacement of a petroleum tank or the addition of an alternative-fuel tank. Alternative fuels listed under the bill include ethanol, compressed natural gas and biodiesel.

Funds to install or convert a fuel pump would come from interest accrued from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Program established through the Superfund Revenue Act of 1986.

Cischke says the bill has “a lot of support” within Congress and the Senate and “has a lot to do with encouraging the use of ethanol,” a renewable organic energy source used to produce E85, a blend of 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol.

Currently, only 600 of the 170,000 fueling stations in the U.S. offer E85. Cischke says 30 times more E85 pumps are needed just to fuel the E85-capable vehicles on the road today.

While most experts agree expanding the use of E85 will help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, Cischke tells Ward’s it is not a cure-all.

“Ethanol as a fuel has 28% less energy than gas, so when you burn it in a vehicle you get a reduction in fuel economy,” Cischke says.

“But there’s more octane in the fuel (E85), so if you could only run on E85 and change compression ratios you could get it to be as energy efficient. But since they (E85 vehicles) have to run on both (gasoline and ethanol), you reduce fuel economy about 25%,” she says.

“But, it’s about 30 cents a gallon cheaper than gas,” she says, and, importantly, it is a homegrown fuel source.

Another drawback to E85 is its corrosiveness, Cischke says. Difficulty transporting the corrosive fuel may limit volume transport, initially, beyond the “farm belt” area of the country where the bulk of ethanol is produced.

Currently, there are more than 5 million E85-capable vehicles on the road, and 1 million more are expected to be sold this year. Ford plans on selling 250,000 E85-capable vehicles, including a version of its best-selling F-150 pickup, this year, Cischke says.

The day after Cischke’s visit to Washington, General Motors Corp. Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, Chrysler Group President and CEO Tom LaSorda and Bill Ford, chairman and CEO of Ford, also met with Congressional leadership.

All pledged support for more E85-fueled vehicles and expanding the necessary fueling infrastructure.

“It was a good education thing (meeting with Congress),” says a Chrysler spokesman. “Nothing concrete came out of it, but there were some suggestions. We’ll see if they come to fruition, but we’re not going to put some false pretenses out there.”

He says politicians are “driven by consumers, who are also voters, and consumers are pretty upset right now.”

Adds a GM spokesman, “We (went) there to say we can work together to promote energy security though some solutions that are in the marketplace today, such as ethanol.”

Other public policy issues came up, “such as the legacy costs we’re confronted with, health care and currency manipulation,” he says, adding these topics will be discussed further when Big Three leaders meet with President Bush. That meeting, originally slated for May 18, has tentatively been rescheduled for June 2.

bpope@wardsauto.com