Cars, Ethanol and Patriotism

The Times had an interesting article yesterday for which a reporter drove through the Midwest to find out how ethanol users, distributors and producers are adjusting to the new fuel blend. One of the most striking things was that use of ethanol is accompanied by a sense of patriotic pride. One person, for example, says, "We are in favor of alternative energy forms, especially those produced here in the United States." Trade associations and state governments are pushing for more ethanol use.

The reasons a patriot would support energy independence are internal (i.e., helping American farmers) and external (not wanting to support countries that are de-facto breeding grounds for terrorism). Ominously, the amount and proportion of petroleum coming from the middle east is expected to increase in the coming years, as reported in an article yesterday in discussing OPEC:

The cartel’s members — Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela — together sit atop 75 percent of the world’s reserves and account for about 42 percent of total production, according to BP.

OPEC countries are hardly paragons of economic and political stability. Most of the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, came from Saudi Arabia. The war in Iraq has hurt that country’s ability to pump oil. Bush says Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Can we New Yorkers be patriots too? Not by filling our tanks with ethanol. "E-85 barely exists outside the Corn Belt. You cannot fuel up on it in New York or New England," the Times reported. So what can we do instead? Preventing money from getting to nations that have proven to be spawning grounds for terrorism is as easy as taking mass transit, walking or cycling. So where is the connection between these transportation modes and support for the U.S.A. being made? Nowhere.

Far from being viewed as patriotic, the average person looks at anything except the car as somehow foreign to American sensibilities. Money for Amtrak is "a subsidy" but money for highways is "a public investment." Outside New York and a few other places, mass transit is for poor people and even here where mass transit is socially acceptable for everybody, participation in the city’s most well-known cycling event is cause for arrest. SUV owners all over the country, meanwhile, decorate their vehicles with flags and patriotic-looking ribbon magnets even as they send money each week to Saudi Arabia.

A Minnesotan summed up the paradox recently on a thread about energy:

Six years ago I started riding my first cargo trike. I thought that folks would look at me and say — oh, what a great solution to some of our problems with pollution, global warming, and lack of exercise in our daily routines.  "I think I’ll try that!" they’d say.

Not to mention other benefits — "energy independence" and reduction of oil-related geopolitical tensions and also "peak oil."

But no. …  A significant number of people are hostile to the cargo trike.  It seems to challenge their fundamental beliefs in a way that triggers an immediate emotional response of anger and scorn.

We need a public relations campaign to encourage people to accept mass transit, walking and cycling first as American, and once that’s done, as patriotic.

  • Books for a Penny

    A PR campaign indeed. Here’s some potential slogans:

    Taking Transit [or riding your bike, or walking]: The ultimate patriot act

  • bob from ALAMN

    Take another look at the New York Times article. Look at the graphics. Where are the E85 pumps in the USA located? Where did the NYT reporter and photographer go on their little road trip?

    Did they go anywhere near Minnesota? The state with 288 E85 outlets? The state that sells more biofuel, per capita, than anywhee else in North America? MN dirvers bought more than two million gallons of E85 in July 2006 alone!

    Sure, mass transit and biking and walking are great ways to help fight the air pollution problems associated with petroleum-based fuels. We need many solutions — there is no “silver bullet” solution to this global problem. We should support E85, biodiesel, and anything else that helps.

  • We should get some of those old WWII posters about how waste and inefficiency aid the enemy. You know, because they do.

  • AD

    Alamn, you are correct. We absolutely should support E85. No question about it.

    Glenn, you mean like this one:

  • Very cool. Thanks!

  • E85 has to be done right – low fossil fuel inputs to agricultural process is the key.

    But even better is to simply bring US energy consumption levels down significantly. We all have to do our part. Maybe we can buy some ad space and simply reprint some of the old posters?

  • Ron Steenblik (Global Subsidies Initiative)

    AD makes an excellent point: that the average U.S. citizen looks at solutions involving anything other than (large) cars or SUVs as non-starters. This attitude can also be seen in the stark rhetoric used in support of ethanol. Senator Richard Lugar and Vinod Khosla, in their August 3rd commentary in the Washington Times (, begin: “There is a growing consensus America must end its addiction to oil. Yet there is despair we can actually do so, short of draconian cuts in energy use that would leave Americans sweltering — or shivering — in the dark and trudging to work for miles on foot.” Shivering in the dark? I hadn’t heard that expression since the 1970s!

    The current obsession among politicians and journalists with E85, however, conveniently glosses over that consumption side of the equation. Simply put, the majority of flex-fuel vehicles sold in the USA and Canada are gas guzzlers. Of the thirty-four 2007-year models rated by the EPA, three-quarters of them have 5.3-liter, 8-cylinder engines.

    The amount of ethanol these 5.3-litre vehicles would consume in a year (on EPA assumptions on distance and the city-highway split) ranges from 940 to 1140 gallons. And every gallon of that is subsidized. The federal volumetric ethanol excise tax credit paid to blenders in producing the fuel needed to run a GMC Yukon XL 1500 4WD on E85 for a year, for example, would amount to $520. Is that an efficient and equitable use of public money? (Coincidentally, $520 is roughly the annual average per capita gross national income of a person living in a low-income country.) And the $520 estimate does not even include the tax incentives for purchasing a flex-fuel vehicle, money being spent by governments to make filling stations flex-fuel capable, or tax breaks and incentives for ethanol provided by the individual states (which can be as high as $0.20/gallon). Perhaps the owners of these vehicles should be sporting bumper stickers that say “Thanks for subsidizing my driving, chump!”

  • J:Lai

    People prefer private cars to mass transit or non-motor-vehicles, and people prefer bigger, faster cars to smaller, efficient ones. You can’t change preferences by legislation, and I’m skeptical that you can do much to change them by public relations.

    I think people respond very strongly and fairly predictably to economic incentives. The important thing for most people in the decision about whether and what to drive is the difference in cost, comfort, and speed of travel between a private car and whatever alternatives may exist.

    Unfortunately, in most of the US there are no viable alternatives to a car based lifestyle. Small, efficient cars have distinct disadvantages when you spend large amounts of time in the car and often have to use the car to carry lots of cargo or other people.

    Increasing the cost of owning and driving a car, while at the same time making alternatives more attractive (or even available) can cause a behavioral shift. However, these things happen on the scale of decades. The car culture wasn’t created overnight, and it’s not going to change overnight either.

    The things that could have the most immediate impact seem to be

    1) let the price of gas increase. The natural price should probably be approximately double what it is right now in the US. Although a political non-starter, it is likely that this would have an immediate impact on the marginal decision to drive on unnecessary trips, and on decisions about things like carpooling. Eventually it could encourage people to live closer to where they work/shop/etc and encourage population patterns more conducive to living with minimal car use.

    2) Increase the cost of vehicle registration. State DMV agencies have control over how much of the societal cost of vehicle use is recouped from the owners. Right now, it is negligible. By raising the cost of vehicle registration by a factor of 10 or more, people who are marginal vehicle owners would have the incentive to get rid of their unnecessary vehicles. Over the long term, this could encourage more people to seek living situations where they do not need to own a vehicle.

  • Ron Steenblik (Global Subsidies Initiative)

    Many people no doubt prefer private cars to mass transit or non-motor-vehicles, and many people prefer bigger or faster cars to smaller or more poky ones. The trend towards ever-larger vehicles is due in part to network effects: once a significant percentage of people are driving big cars, new buyers feel the need to drive a large car also, lest they end up on the loosing end of a collision.

    Many people, especially in cities, might choose mass transit if it is safe and relaiable (for one, a person can read or do other things not possible while driving), while many others would enjoy riding a bike (for the excercise, for example), again if it can be done safely.

    Urban-planning decisions and other policies have long taken the status quo — the private car is the dominant form of transport — as a reflection of collective preferences. But that soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  • David

    New Yorkers can indeed be patriots if viable alternatives existed. While I don’t own a car, I certainly see why one would rather ride in the comfort a car (or more likely SUV) down Atlantic Ave rather than riding the bus which doesn’t get you to your desination any sooner.

    However, if we (and more importantly City Hall) were serious about transportation issues, we’d work to increase the speed of mass transit, especially the bus systme. Trust me, if one could jump on a bus and blow by cars stopped in traffic, more people would ride the bus.

    It’s amazing that while countries in Europe, South America and Asia have either implemented or are considering implementing rapid bus systems, we in the U.S. are falling behind.

    I’m patriotic, I want the U.S. to be looked at as having the most innovative, smart and clean transportation sytems in the world… Now if I could get the people in government to feel the same way…

  • crzwdjk

    It’s amazing that America has almost entirely forgotten that it once had the most extensive streetcar network in the world. Every town with aspirations to be a city had to have one, and there were interurban lines connecting towns. And streetcars are of course electric, which implies a much greater efficiency than internal combustion engines of any kind, and they run on rails, which are inherently a good deal (about 8 times) more efficient than rubber on asphalt, so the same number of people can be moved the same distance with less energy. Plus, they’re more predictable than buses, more comfortable, and people seem to like them more. Yet all the transportation planners talk about is Bus Rapid Transit.

  • I agree crzwdjk – but Bus Rapid Transit is sort of middle ground compromise that is more politically appealing to all concerned.

    Once the BRT only lane is established though, you can electrify the bus with overhead wires and later tracks. It’s a gateway platform that you can easily add to later.

  • David

    I agree with both Glenn and crzwdjk but it’s all about cost, and a BRT seems to be the cheapest option. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.


Pseudo-Environmental Hummers

A lone Hummer driver with a conscience? At first glance, it seems so. But this is actually becoming something of a trend: Everyone who is pitching an alternative fuel these days is using a Hummer to make his or her point. And the reason is obvious. Everyone knows that Hummers are the most gas guzzing private vehicles on […]

New York Could be a Global Leader in Alternative Energy

The Syracuse Post-Standard reports: The shrub willow, which can be burned to make steam and electricity or fermented to make ethanol, or both, is just one of the renewable, homegrown sources of energy under development in Upstate New York. Fertilized by government incentives and by the need to kick the oil and gas habit, alternative […]

Biofuels, Bus Lanes and Beer

 Beer good, ethanol bad  Pledging support for alternate fuel sources may make for feel-good politicking, but "simply" developing a substitute for gasoline could do more harm than good. Instead, a panel of experts said last week, Americans must seriously address their addiction to fossil fuels, along with the built environment that enables it. Moderated by […]

We Must Imagine a Future Without Cars

From Alternet, the following is an excerpted version of James Howard Kunstler‘s recent speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, well worth reading in its entirety. An audio stream of the speech is also available: Two years ago in my book The Long Emergency I wrote that our nation was sleepwalking into an era of […]

Ethanol: Feed a Person for a Year or Fill Up an SUV?

Robert Bryce of Counterpunch comments on what he calls the ethanol scam: Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that the amount of grain needed to make enough ethanol to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank "would feed one person for a full year. If the United […]

House Bill Makes Connection Between Transit Funding and Gas Price Relief

Here’s an alternative to the "Drill Now!" mantra that doesn’t involve ethanol subsidies or depleting the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Earlier this month, Congressman Earl Blumenauer introduced the Transportation and Housing Choices for Gas Price Relief Act [PDF]. Blumenauer’s hometown paper, The Oregonian, calls the measure a "smart bill": The key word in that title is […]