German Drivers Say “Nein” to Ethanol

Published April 11, 2011

An ambitious scheme to introduce the German driving public to presumed environmental virtues of ethanol has resulted in what Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner has called a “fiasco.”

Instead of embracing a biofuel its supporters have touted as eco-friendly, Germans are refusing to buy a new, 95-octane product called “Super E10,” a mixture of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol.

Fearful that Super E10 will damage their cars’ engines and lower their vehicles’ performance and fuel efficiency, German drivers are boycotting the biofuel, leaving service station owners stuck with a product no one wants. Moreover, consumers’ snub of ethanol has led to a run on more expensive 98-octane gasoline, which has led to shortages of the latter.

Political Backlash
With chaos reigning at Germany’s 15,000 filling stations, finger-pointing is well underway. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, which promoted the introduction of Super E10, blames the oil industry and filling stations for failing to “educate” the public on which automobiles are suitable for the new biofuel/gasoline blend and which are not. Economics Minister Rainer Bruedele has called for a gasoline summit involving all stakeholders on the issue, telling the German newspaper Bild, “The confusion caused by the oil industry is unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, opposition parties are slamming Merkel’s government for the fuel supply disruptions and general confusion. Baerbel Hoehn, deputy leader of the opposition Greens pointed to Merkel’s role in pushing through European Union (EU) regulations in 2007 that led to the introduction this year of E10. Greenpeace has also entered the fray, saying, “E10 can ruin cars and the environment.”  

Like the United States, the EU has supported biofuels as being good for farmers and a means to combat what regulators say is human-induced global warming. But Germany is proving a tough sell when it comes to asking its citizens to sacrifice speed and fuel economy on the highway for government-mandated environmental correctness. 

Similar U.S. Concerns
In the United States, the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is encountering similarly stiff headwinds in its push for E15, a gasoline blend that raises the current 10 percent ethanol standard to 15 percent. The House of Representatives has voted to deny EPA funds to implement the program.

As in Germany, there are widespread fears in the United States that ethanol will harm engines and lower fuel economy. Moreover, ethanol production depletes Midwestern aquifers and encourages the conversion of forests and prairies into marginal cropland.

“The ever-expanding push to use more ethanol is purely because of politics and special interests, not because ethanol actually competes favorably in the marketplace,” said Dan Simmons, director of state policy for the Washington-based Institute for Energy Research.

“While the Obama EPA tries to force Americans to use more ethanol through E15, it’s good to see German gas consumers push back against the ethanol lobby. This is a case where economic and environmental factors are in full alignment arguing against government mandates,” Simmons observed. 

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.