State might be spending more money on flex-fuel vehicles

Tuesday, October 9, 2007 | 2:43 p.m. CDT; updated 1:23 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ST. LOUIS — The state has bought hundreds of flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on ethanol over the past few years, but that may be costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in fuel costs because of these vehicles’ lower gas mileage, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday.

Flex-fuel vehicles can run on either regular gasoline or an 85 percent blend of ethanol, which typically is generated from corn.

While E85 can boost Missouri’s farm economy and reduce the country’s dependency on foreign oil, it also can reduce vehicle gas mileage by 15 to 30 percent, according to federal and auto industry estimates.

Supporters of the fuel note that E85 generally is less expensive than regular gas. Missouri officials say they believe those discounts make up for most, if not all, of the loss in gas mileage.

But Missouri’s own data suggest the state is probably not buying E85 at enough of a discount to justify the loss in gas mileage. In fact, for every dollar the state is saving on the fuel, it could be spending as much as $2 extra toward more frequent fill-ups.

According to an annual report by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the state paid about 14 percent less than it would have for gas for 299,155 gallons of E85 it bought between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006.

But the same report acknowledges that E85 cuts gas mileage by 29 percent.

If that estimate is accurate, the state could have saved more than $75,000 if cars had been filled with regular gasoline instead of E85, according to calculations by the Post-Dispatch.

State officials question that figure, saying they believe the state’s E85 fleet isn’t losing nearly as much gas mileage as the federal estimates would suggest.

“We are not actually seeing that big of a drop,” said Cindy Carroll, an energy specialist for the Department of Natural Resources.

But officials acknowledge they have no definitive information showing the mileage that state-owned cars are getting with the alternative fuel. Carroll said the state may soon be able to track purchases to provide a cost-per-mile comparison between E85 and traditional gasoline.

Missouri’s move to E85 was triggered by a 1999 law that established quotas for the purchase of flex-fuel vehicles. Currently, that law requires at least half of new state vehicles to be capable of using E85. The same law says those cars should fill up with E85 at least 30 percent of the time.

But the state is aggressively increasing ethanol consumption by state vehicles. Gov. Matt Blunt signed a bill into law this year that will ensure 70 percent of new state cars will be able to burn E85.

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