That vision has dimmed.

Propane-powered vehicles, also highly promoted 10 years ago, never caught on with the masses.

The biggest thing in alternative fuels right now is ethanol.

Jamie Peachey
Jamie Peachey

But experts admit, reluctantly, that gasoline-burning engines are likely to be with us for decades to come, barring any unexpected major leaps forward in electric or hydrogen technology.

Gasoline and diesel engines are bad for the air on both a local and global basis. In the Phoenix area, they produce some of the particulate matter, carbon monoxide and ground-level ozone in our air.

As most people now know, the uncounted millions of combustion engines on Earth are also unlocking carbon that's been stored in the ground for millions of years and chucking it into the atmosphere, where it pretty much stays. Most scientists believe the extra level of greenhouse gas is warming the Earth at an unnaturally rapid pace — which is the global warming theory in a nutshell.

Petroleum-burning vehicles are becoming more efficient, but global-warming alarmists claim far more radical changes in fuel use are needed to avert disaster.

The finite supply of oil also must be considered. It's only becoming more expensive as it is used up, and someday it will all be gone.

In principle, then, alternative fuels make perfect sense.

In reality, they've been something of a boondoggle.

Their ability to control air pollution isn't proven, and they've been very expensive.

Government handouts for producers and users of alternative fuels, also known as subsidies, have used up billions of public dollars even as the fuels' environmental value is debated.

In 2006, producing one gallon of ethanol took about $1.45 in subsidies. Last month, the New York Times called for an end to ethanol subsidies and laid the blame for high food prices worldwide and the specter of future mass starvation on "environmentally dubious bio-fuels."

Eight years ago, Arizona showed the rest of the country just how ludicrous alternative-fuel subsidies could get. The state promised to pay residents about half of the cost of a new vehicle (most were SUVs loaded with options) if the buyer converted the vehicle to run partly on natural gas or propane. The vehicle didn't actually have to use the fuel, mind you. Many buyers installed only a token four-gallon natural-gas tank to get the subsidy, with no intention (or any practical way) of actually using the fuel.

People even got some vehicles for free.

A flat subsidy of $30,000 was paid for heavier pickup trucks, like Ford F-450s, even though, without options, the trucks retailed for less than $30,000. One loophole allowed buyers to collect the subsidy and immediately sell the vehicles out of state for profit. Another failed to effectively limit how many people could get a subsidy.

Accountants had mistakenly informed state lawmakers that the program would cost the state $10 million at most. But by the time Arizona lawmakers killed the program in late 2000, qualified state residents had applied for about $800 million in subsidies.

On the advice of Janet Napolitano, then the state's attorney general, lawmakers canceled the subsidies for everyone except those who had already purchased a vehicle. Ultimately, the state spent about $140 million on the program and the phrase "alternative fuels" became synonymous with government waste. New Times covered the fiasco as it erupted ("Fuel's Gold," September 28, 2000, and "What a Gas," October 12, 2000).

Experts agree that all this money spent did nothing to clean the air.

The momentum that had sparked the nightmare subsidy program, however, continued by mandate in the government fleets. Years later, several Valley public and private fleets pump alternative fuels daily into their heavy vehicles like buses and garbage trucks.

As far as the smaller vehicles driven by government workers — the kind the rest of us drive — gasoline has won the day.

"Phoenix has won awards for the largest alternative-fuel fleet in the state," says Gaye Knight, the city's environmental specialist. "We've invested very heavily in it, and it's not working out real well."

Most disturbing, says Knight, is that all the money poured into alternative fuels by the city in recent years possibly didn't benefit the air at all.


Though ethanol is expected to be used more frequently in coming years, it may not help reduce pollution, either.

Locally, we have to deal with the scientific fact that ethanol evaporates more quickly than gasoline, especially in our extreme summer heat. Fumes from automobiles rise into the air and combine with other chemicals to form ground-level ozone, a lung-damaging smog the Valley has battled for years. From November through March, 10 percent of the gasoline we use contains ethanol, but the state doesn't allow it to be used in the summer, like in other parts of the country.

As it is, the Valley has been on the verge of violating federal health standards for ozone, and it's clear that E85 produces at least as much ozone-forming chemicals as gasoline, says James Anderson, a scientist in Arizona State University's School of Engineering.

If widespread use of E85 turns out to contribute to the Valley's ozone levels more than the gasoline it replaces, Anderson says, "then you've got a disaster because you've put in all this infrastructure and investment."

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Mikey
Mikey

Here in Utah, we don't have such a problem... We have something like 20 CNG fueling stations, and about 95% of the state's 2.5 million people live in a 90x20 mile strip. Natural gas here also works out to about $.85/gallon, which is pretty sweet as well...

Barco
Barco

This article does a great job discussing problems related to vehicles and air pollution. The one solution -- die young -- leaves something to be desired.

 
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