Biofuel supporters better step on it

Gas City is the only Chicago filling station that carries E-85 ethanol blend fuel.

KAI RYSSDAL: You might know what you want this election season. But politicians probably don't. Because they're not talking about The Real Agenda. Things like health care or tax policy. Issues that voters say are important to them.

Energy's one of them. California and Washington State each have energy initiatives on the ballot this fall. Illinois is pushing conservation. Governor Rod Blagojevich wants to spend more than a billion dollars to increase the use of ethanol. Gas from corn, basically. But when we sent Sam Eaton out from behind our Sustainability Desk to have a look see, he discovered the politics of energy economics are a bit more complicated.


SAM EATON: I arrive at Chicago O'Hare airport with an ambitious goal. Rent a car that can run off of ethanol in a state that hopes to become the corn-fuel capital of America. But my hopes are quickly dashed.EATON: How are you doing? I am wondering, I'm a reporter and I'm looking for a car that runs on ethanol.

AGENT: No.

EATON: Do you know if anybody carries cars that run on ethanol?

AGENT: I know we don't. I know Budget doesn't either.

The agent says ethanol cars are still "too specialized" for the rental market. Corn-based fuel called E-85 is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. But not just any car can use this homegrown biofuel. Out of the 238 million vehicles on the road in the U.S., only 5 million have engines designed to run on either ethanol or gas. They're called flex-fuel vehicles.

My rented Ford Taurus isn't one of them. And there may be good reason. A recent Harris Interactive study found that more than half of U.S. drivers say they'd buy a Flex Fuel vehicle to help reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. But keeping the tank full is another story. Of the nation's 176,000 gas stations only 800 carry E-85.

In Chicago there's only one, called Gas City, on the north side of town.

Hector Venezuelas fills his tank with regular unleaded. He says even though ethanol is 30 cents cheaper than gas, the price difference isn't enough for him to trade in his old Jeep Cherokee for a new car that can use the stuff.
HECTOR VENEZUELAS: Because it'll cost you more to convert your vehicle over to run on ethanol than it will in the savings. Drop it a dollar or so, then well talk. Later.

Another customer who drives a beat-up Volvo, says the reduced gas mileage of a car running on ethanol cancels out any savings at the pump anyway. He says he'd rather drive a gas-sipping hybrid. Dino McMann, a young father from Chicago's south side, says what he puts in his gas tank is the last thing on his mind.

EATON: So when you think about voter issues is energy . . .

DINO MCMANN: Is energy one of them? No. Not really right now. School is first. But this energy thing. Yeah there's a problem with energy but there's nothing we can do as voters.

After two hours not a single car fills up with E-85. Those who support energy conservation say ethanol isn't practical in the city. That's because the flex-fuel cars the automakers produce are mainly for the rural market — big SUVs and trucks. So just who's supporting Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's proposal to spend more than a billion dollars on renewable fuels?

Drive 150-miles down one of Illinois' self-proclaimed "ethanol corridors" into the heart of corn country and it becomes pretty clear.

PAUL JAQUET: Almost everything is positive about it.

Galva corn farmer Paul Jaquet says the ethanol boom is a godsend, but not because it will reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

JAQUET: It's gonna add money to the farm economy, which is gonna be great. If we can't make a dollar, we're sunk and it has been tough to make a dollar on the farm.

In the nation's second largest corn-producing state, it's not just the farmer who gains from an ethanol boom.

HAGAMAN: When a farmer makes money, everybody makes money, because when a farmer makes money he spends money.

That's Galva Mayor Don Hagaman. He's taking me on a tour of his small town of 2,800 people. Most of the buildings on the main street are boarded up and empty.

EATON: Is it hard to keep the younger generations in these small, rural towns in rural Illinois?

HAGAMAN: Nearly impossible. When they get out of high school and they graduate and go onto college you very seldom ever see them come back.

It's harvest time. Outside of town, lines of semis are delivering local corn to the grain elevator for shipping to Texas feed lots. Nearby, the ground is scraped clean in preparation for a new ethanol plant that will keep that corn and the 50 high-paying jobs the plant will generate right here in Galva.

EATON: So what does that mean for the future?

HAGAMAN: Well you keep hoping that some of the jobs you bring in are gonna bring in young families with young kids and you'll start the cycle all over again.

EATON: Hoping?

HAGAMAN: Hoping.

In Galva, Illinois, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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