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City Cars Can Run on Ethanol, but Often Don't

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    A picture of an ethanol-fueled car was featured prominently on the city's old "AlbuquerqueGreen" Web page.
    SustainLane, a company that helps cities go green, ranked Albuquerque fourth best in the nation for its use of alternatives to traditional gasoline and diesel to fuel the vehicles owned by municipal governments. That put the city ahead of such green city powerhouses as Portland, Ore., and Seattle.
    But there is a problem with the claim.
    A big part of the city's push toward alternative fuel vehicles is to buy cars that can run on ethanol, an alternative to gasoline that is primarily made in this country from grain, mostly corn.
    But while the cars can run on ethanol, the city's fueling stations have not caught up to the demand. Last year, just 17 percent of the fuel used in the city's ethanol-capable cars was actually ethanol, according to city data. The rest was ordinary gasoline.
    That will change in coming years as the city's fueling stations are switched over to handle ethanol, said John Soladay, the head of the city's sustainability efforts.
    Ironically, the fact that the cars did not use ethanol may not be such a bad thing in environmental terms.
    Ethanol, once a darling of those pushing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has gotten a bad rap in the sustainability community of late.
    Fossil fuels and fertilizers used to grow corn mean very little net greenhouse gas savings with corn-based ethanol, said Joe Romm, who served in the Department of Energy during the Clinton Administration and who now runs the Climate Progress blog.
    A recent report in Science magazine by William Laurance of the Smithsonian Institution claimed increased use of ethanol in the United States has set off a chain reaction that has led to deforestation in the Amazon— which contributes to global warming.
    To supply the growing ethanol market, according to Laurance, U.S. farmers are shifting from soy to corn. That has driven up the global price of soy, encouraging farmers in Brazil to cut down large swaths of forest to grow more soy.
    "The environmental benefits of corn-based biofuel might be considerably reduced when its full and indirect costs are considered," Laurance wrote.