The state of New Jersey owns more than 2,200 cars and light trucks that run on a cleaner-burning fuel mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, called E85. But a state worker in Trenton, N.J., would have to drive nearly 30 miles one-way to get that special fuel in downtown Philadelphia.
New Jersey's so-called "flex-fuel" vehicles are being run only on dirtier unleaded gasoline because the Garden State is one of seven where there are no state-owned or retail pumps that dispense E85, including Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA). Although flex-fuel cars can use conventional gasoline, they emit more carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, than if they used the mostly ethanol mix, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found.
Nationwide, state governments have bought more than 40,000 flex-fuel vehicles to meet requirements of the federal Energy Policy Act of 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The act was intended to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, but 30 states do not provide E85 at any state-owned fuel depots, and only 18 states have more than 10 retail sites with the special fuel.
"We know that some huge percentage of vehicles capable of burning E85 are not [using that fuel]," said Jim Coogan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy
In theory, the 1992 law should have been a boon for ethanol, which has been promoted as a petroleum replacement since the energy crisis of the 1970s. But states have exploited a loophole: The act does not actually require states use any alternative fuel.
When the law was passed, states were required to buy for their fleets a small percentage of alternatively-fueled vehicles and mostly purchased vehicles that ran only on compressed natural gas or propane.
But by the late 1990's, domestic automakers were mass-producing flex-fuel vehicles that could run on gasoline or alternative fuel, and states started snapping them up to meet the law's growing requirements. These new flex-fuel vehicles also relieved them of using E85.
The federal law required that by 2001, 75 percent of new state vehicles had to be able to run on something besides gasoline, with exceptions for law enforcement cars and heavy equipment
Some states, especially in the corn-rich Midwest, have made a strong commitment to boosting the use of E85 both for government and publicly owned flex-fuel vehicles.
The state of Minnesota owns more than 1,700 flex-fuel vehicles that burned more than 300,000 gallons of E85 in the first nine months of 2007, according to the state's Department of Administration.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has issued two executive orders to boost the number of ethanol fueling sites and requiring state employees to fill up state vehicles with E85 "whenever possible" at the state's Central Motor Pool or one of 342 retail gas stations where the E85 is available in the state - nearly a quarter of the total 1,502 public and government-owned gas stations where E85 is pumped, according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC). In 2007, the state was on pace to double the amount of E85 that it used the previous year, according to Department of Administration figures.
Iowa has the largest number of state-owned fueling sites, seven, where the E85 blend is available. In all, there are at least 36 state-owned fueling sites in 20 states that dispense E85, half of them in major corn-growing states including Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA).
There are also success stories outside the Midwest. North Carolina installed a 10,000-gallon E85 tank to fill the state's flex-fuel vehicles in 1999, said John Massey, director of the state's motor fleet. North Carolina now has more than 6,000 flex-fuel vehicles, and the state fueling depot never closes, he said. In 2006, state vehicles used more than 242,000 gallons of E85.
But the Tar Heel State is one of the exceptions to the rule, and officials in other places are starting to ask questions. Last year, state lawmakers in California and Connecticut have raised concerns about why their states have bought so many flex-fuel cares and trucks without providing the right fuel or taking other measures to reduce gasoline use. The entire state of California has one state-owned fueling depot in Sacramento that dispenses E85 and three additional retail stations, according to NEVC. Connecticut has four state-owned sites with the ethanol blend but no retail stations, according to its Department of Administrative Services.
The California Air Resources Board launched a $25 million program last year to help finance the installation of new E85 stations across the state.
Tom Vincz, a spokesman for the New Jersey Treasurer's Office, said his state simply cannot buy the E85. "There is the dilemma of having the federal rule, but the fuel is not available for purchase at the wholesale level," he explained.
Although ethanol production has more than doubled since 2003, it still accounts for only about 5 percent of the auto fuel consumed in the United States. Most of that is mixed in a fuel of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol, which can be used by conventional cars and trucks. A much smaller percentage of ethanol is used for E85 - about 22.4 million gallons were used in 2005, according to DOE statistics, compared to more than 140 billion gallons of gasoline.
Because 98 percent of ethanol is distilled from corn, it is produced largely in the Midwestern states and must be transported by truck or rail across the nation and blended with gasoline closer to the fueling sites. It cannot be mixed with gasoline and sent through a pipeline.
Governments and commercial retailers also may be unwilling to invest in the equipment to pump ethanol because the national Underwriters Laboratory removed its safety endorsement for E85 pumps, raising liability concerns for both retailers and government fleets, explained Michelle Kautz of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, which promotes the use of flex-fuel vehicles.
But even without the expanded use of E85, ethanol will likely become a much larger part of the nation's auto fuels in coming years. In December, President Bush signed an energy bill requiring the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 - 21 billion gallons of that must come from sources other than corn, such as switchgrass or wood chips.
And many states also are moving to cut their gasoline use by purchasing more hybrid vehicles that get greater efficiency by using electric engine to complement a gasoline-powered motor. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has ordered state fleets to make hybrids 5 percent of all new vehicles bought, Vincz said.
Nine states are listed on Automotive Fleet Magazine's list of top 50 public and commercial fleets using hybrids, including New Jersey at number 30.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Connecticut had only two state-owned sites that dispense E85, based on incorrect information from the U.S. Department of Energy. The story has been updated to say that there are four state fuel depots that dispense that fuel.