Stanford University scientist Mark Jacobson rattled ethanol boosters last year with a study that claims heavy use of the fuel would cause more health problems than gasoline. A rebuttal paper by the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council shed doubt on some of Jacobson's findings, but didn't exactly end on a high note: "An accurate summary would be that [Jacobson's] study shows that use of high-blend ethanol is unlikely to significantly improve air quality compared to the use of gasoline."

Ethanol, like other alternative fuels, does reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. But, as Jacobson suggests, the use of corn-based ethanol has other ramifications that offset the good things it does.

On a national and global level, increased ethanol use has played havoc with the overall food market, particularly corn prices, which reached a record high in April. People around the world are paying more for food because of ethanol production. Scientists say the bio-fuel trend is leading countries like Brazil to destroy rainforests faster than ever.

Jamie Peachey
Jamie Peachey

A fiercely debated study in February's Science magazine estimates that changes in land use to make ethanol will result in twice as much greenhouse gas as the gasoline it replaces.

The potential danger is similar with bio-diesel, which also can be made from food stocks. Cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from switch grass and even yard waste, doesn't lead to such land-use changes, but nobody has figured out how to mass-produce it yet.

From a Valley perspective, alternative fuels have been irrelevant when it comes to pollution, says Lindy Bauer, environmental director for the Maricopa Association of Governments.

Gasoline engines have become so much cleaner, when it comes to emissions, in the past few years that alternative fuels just aren't much better, she says.

"In the old days, when they were dirtier, then you saw alternative fuels having an impact," Bauer says. "Now they're more on a level playing field."

Vehicle exhaust is only part of the air-pollution problem. Even if alternative fuels were much cleaner than gasoline, which they apparently aren't, the effect on our air would still be modest.

Take the case of particulate matter, which has become the Valley's most dangerous air-quality problem. Sure, that black cloud coming from a diesel-powered semi-truck's exhaust pipe is full of PM-10, (that's shorthand for particulate matter up to 10 millionths of a meter in size). And although you can't see it, PM-10 lurks in the exhaust of gasoline-powered vehicles, too.

Yet a 2007 report from the Maricopa County Air Quality Department shows that about 99 percent of the Valley's PM-10 comes from sources other than vehicle exhaust.

Dust from construction sites is the single-largest contributor to PM-10 in the Phoenix area, accounting for 38 percent.

Then there's the dust kicked up by vehicles. Even if every vehicle in the Valley had run on electricity in 2007, the dust produced by these vehicles on paved and unpaved roads would still have produced more than a quarter of the particulate pollution, the report shows. (And, of course, the pollution coming from the power plants needed to juice up electric cars also would have to be taken into account).

The bottom line is that alternative fuels, given so few hard facts and considering their other problems, appear no better than gasoline. They simply aren't providing the kind of obvious results for the air that, for example, was seen with changing to unleaded fuel, which dramatically reduced lead in the air.

Electric-gasoline hybrids (mainly the 48-miles-per-gallon Toyota Prius) have fared much better in the marketplace than alternative-fuel vehicles. But hybrids aren't the answer to the world's air-pollution problems, either, because they burn petroleum.

In the big picture, hybrids are gas-thrifty vehicles that appeal to people who want other people to know they care about the environment.

They do save gas, but at a price — an immediate cost to the carbuyer. The potential customer base of hybrids is bound to stay relatively small because they are more expensive than regular cars. The savings in gas costs, compared with similar non-hybrid vehicles, may cancel out the higher up-front cost at some point. But it will take a few years to see the savings, whereas the higher monthly payments start immediately.

When New Times asked government officials why they weren't replacing their alternative fuel cars with hybrids, the answer was always the same: Money.

Nobody knows whether the Valley's use of natural gas, propane or bio-diesel vehicles in cars, SUVs, or city buses has reduced air pollution even a little bit.

The state Department of Environmental Quality, which runs the vehicle-emissions-testing program, has never taken the simple step of measuring the difference in pollution between a flex-fuel vehicle with a tank of E85 and the same vehicle with a tank of gasoline, says spokesman Tom Marcinko.

Phoenix poured 9.7 million gallons of alternative fuels into its vehicles last year — the bulk of it liquid natural gas in the city's buses — which amounted to more than half of all the fuel it used in vehicles. Ron Serio, Phoenix's deputy public works director, believes that must account for some improvement to our air.

However, the city doesn't test its buses for emissions.

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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...


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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