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Automakers push flex fuel over CAFE

Bio-diesel fuel

KAI RYSSDAL: President Bush had a photo op out on the South Lawn of the White House today. I'm not sure if he actually kicked any tires. But he did get a personal tour of Detroit's lastest flex-fuel offerings. Cars that can run on either traditional gas or ethanol. Alternative fuels have been a favorite of the president's, at least since his State of the Union Speech. Here he is this morning:

PRESIDENT BUSH: If you want to reduce gasoline usage, like I believe we need to do so for national security reasons as well as for environmental concerns, the consumer has got to be in a position to make a rational choice.

The walkabout followed half an hour in the Oval Office with the CEOs of Ford, GM and Chrysler. They were there to talk about reducing U.S. gasoline consumption. The automakers say more use of alternative fuels is the key.

Left unsaid has been anything about boosting fuel economy standards. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton has the story.


SAM EATON: Nearly two weeks after the Big Three put in some Congressional time to lobby against higher fuel economy or CAFE standards, U.S. auto executives are back in Washington. President Bush called the meeting to talk about his proposal to reduce U.S. gas consumption 20 percent over the next decade. GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner says flex-fuel vehicles, which can run off of a blend of corn-based ethanol called E-85, will go a long way toward achieving Bush's goal.
RICK WAGONER: This makes a big difference and there's nothing that can be done which can reduce the curve of growth in imported oil and actually turn it down like using E-85, taking advantage of what's there today.

Executives from the Big Three say they could make half of their new vehicles bio-fuel ready by 2012. But David Freedman with the Union of Concerned Scientists says unless Congress boosts CAFE standards, more flex-fuel vehicles will do little to cut gasoline usage.

DAVID FREEDMAN: If at the end of the day all we do is switch from guzzling gasoline to guzzling ethanol we certainly aren't going to make the progress that we need.

Freedman says most of the 6 million flex-fuel vehicles already on the road are huge trucks and SUV's. And many of them rarely fill up with E-85, since so few gas stations carry the stuff. The automakers say government incentives are needed to boost infrastructure. But economist Steven Szakaly with the Center for Automotive Research says there are better ways to spend the cash.

STEVEN SZAKALY: One has to wonder if we invested that money in, say, a more efficient internal combustion engine or hybrid electric vehicles, wouldn't that be a better and greater benefit for the cost.

That, of course, depends on who's footing the bill. Szakaly says making cars flex-fuel compatible only costs automakers about $100 a pop. Making them more fuel efficient can run into the thousands.

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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