Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa
DES MOINES, Iowa – Now that the federal government has gained control over the nation’s auto industry, one U.S. senator contends, it’s time to make some changes in the kinds of cars Americans drive and the kinds of fuel they use.
According to a Des Moines Register report, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, wants Congress to use “climate change” legislation to mandate that auto manufacturers fit all new cars to run on a blend of 85 percent ethanol.
“We own the automobile companies,” Harkin said earlier this week. “Why not? I think that will be an easy one.”
Harkin, the Register reports, also wants to see the climate bill increase installation of E85 fuel pumps around the country and compel the Environmental Protection Agency to up the current limit on ethanol content in gasoline blends from 10 percent to 15 percent.
Harkin’s plans would pave the way for increasing demand of corn-based ethanol fuel blends and likely be of political benefit to the senator, who not only chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, but also hails from the state that leads the nation in ethanol production.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu agreed, stating in a speech last month that all new vehicles should be equipped to run on E85, though Chu spokesman Tom Reynolds later told the Register the Obama administration is not planning to impose mandates on the car companies.
“The administration has been clear that the government won’t be making day-to-day business decisions for GM and Chrysler,” Reynolds said. “Those decisions will be left to the company’s executives.”
Currently, America’s three largest car companies make some E85-compatible cars, but have resisted any requirements that all cars be fitted for the fuel.
Scott Tobin, a vehicle line director for Ford, told the New York Times, “E85 is something we know how to do, and the technology for it is well developed. It’s a direction the industry can take, but ethanol presently lacks infrastructure and consumer demand. If there is a breakthrough in cellulosic ethanol development, that might change the equation.”
Cellulosic ethanol holds the promise to be a more efficient fuel producer than the current corn-based formula, but it can not yet be produced in significant quantity.
“We oppose technology mandates of any kind,” Charles Territo of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers told the Register. “Manufacturers should be allowed to choose the types of technology they invest in. There’s only so much [research and development] money to go around.”
Furthermore, the Detroit News reported earlier this week that several House Republicans sent a letter to the Energy Department, protesting the pressure to produce E85-compatible cars.
“We were surprised to hear that one of the president’s cabinet secretaries would suggest an over $1 billion per year mandate on auto companies to make all new cars capable of running on a fuel that is available at less than 2 percent of gas stations nationwide,” said the letter signed by Reps. John Campbell, R-Calif., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Lamar Smith, R-Texas, Bill Cassidy, R-La., Ken Calvert, R-Calif., and Geoff Davis, R-Ky.
According to E85prices.com, there are only about 2130 gas stations in the country that offer E85 gasoline.
The congressmen’s letter added, “We firmly believe that the government should not be in the business of picking technology winners and losers, which would have a chilling impact on the development of other, potentially more beneficial, technologies in the future.”
At least in Iowa, however, Harkin’s plan to use the government’s newfound power over the auto industry to force fuel changes has some advocates.
Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, told the Register the government ought to use its financial stake in the industry to make E85 the standard for new cars.
“Clearly, if the White House decided they wanted GM and Chrysler to do this, they would do it,” Shaw said. “I think it would be good. Once one company goes that way, I think it puts pressure on the other automakers not to be left out.”