Autos: Is E85 Fuel the Answer to U.S. Oil Problems?

Have you noticed all those splashy new gasoline stations in your area? You know, the ones that sell E85 fuel?

No? Don't feel bad. Even though it's a proven fact that cars burning E85 use far less oil than those using conventional gasoline, E85 is not exactly in the fast lane.

What's E85? It's a mixture of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol, a fuel produced from corn and other agricultural products. Now we've all seen corn, right? There's plenty of it in the heartland of this country, and that's the point: Unlike oil, the United States has an abundance of corn. There's no problem of importing anything.

But is it effective? Last week Detroit News auto critic Mark Phelan reported driving a fairly large 2007 Chevrolet Yukon SUV 88 miles from his home in Detroit to Ann Arbor and back. The Yukon weighs more than 5,500 pounds and packs a 320-horsepower engine. But Phelan said he used less than a gallon of gasoline on his journey.

He used 5.2 gallons of fuel but only three-quarters of a gallon consisted of gasoline. The rest was E85. Pretty impressive.

Here's the depressing part, especially if you're a corn farmer who wants to cash in on a renewable energy that powers cars and could help wean the nation off oil: There are exactly zero E85 service stations in New England. None. Zip. None in Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Alaska or Hawaii, either. There are four in Michigan, home of the big three automakers.

There are more than 100 stations where E85 is available -- or will soon be -- in Illinois, for example, but just four in supposedly green-minded California, and all the stations are located at government installations, such as labs or military bases. Of some 168,000 service stations in this country, about 300 offer E85. So it's a scattered picture at best, and it leaves a lot of consumers wondering whether they should invest in an E85-compatible car or truck.

Is Your Vehicle Compatible?

The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition has compiled a list of flexible fuel vehicles. Click Here to See the List.

You should also check your vehicle's owner's manual, or visit the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition Web site at

In some states, E85 is more expensive than regular gasoline. Also, ethanol has less "oomph" than gasoline, so you'll get fewer miles per gallon than you would with a full tank of gasoline.

A study by General Motors said ethanol could provide 30 percent or more of U.S. energy needs. And by filling your tank with E85, you still burn far less gasoline -- and use far less imported oil, striking a blow for energy independence. Burning ethanol also produces less carbon dioxide than gasoline, so those dreaded greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced as well.

Automakers have produced cars that can run on E85 for a number of years now but have done little to promote them. That may be changing. GM OnStar customers will now be able to locate an E85 pump easily. Customers with an OnStar subscription can simply contact an OnStar adviser, who will provide the address, city, state and phone number of the nearest E85 fueling station. The NEVC works closely with OnStar to keep its E85 location database updated.

And finally, there have been full-page ads for E85 in a number of large-circulation newspapers recently. Full-page ads don't come cheap, but somebody is betting they are worth the money.