Checking Obama's promises on flexible-fuel cars

How successful has President Barack Obama been at expanding the market for flexible-fuel vehicles, which can run on an ethanol-gasoline blend?
How successful has President Barack Obama been at expanding the market for flexible-fuel vehicles, which can run on an ethanol-gasoline blend?

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to boost flex-fuel vehicles in two ways -- through federal purchasing and by mandates on carmakers. Despite some progress more broadly on bolstering alternative vehicles, such as electric plug-ins, Obama has fallen short on both promises.

Flexible fuel vehicles are designed to run either on gasoline or on a blend of up to 85 percent ethanol, a format known as E85. Beyond a few mechanical modifications, flex-fuel vehicles are identical to gasoline-only models.   

One of Obama’s promises was to "work with Congress and auto companies to ensure that all new vehicles have flexible fuel capability ... by the end of his first term in office." We found that while Obama isn't at the end of his first term yet, he didn’t seem likely to achieve this goal.
Flex-fuel vehicles in use have risen in recent years, expanding from almost none on the road in the early 1990s to 504,297 in use in 2009. But the twin challenges of weak demand and limited availability of E85 at gas stations has held back the market. In 2009, there were 805,777 E85 vehicles "made available" -- that is, sold or leased by the manufacturer or converted from traditional vehicles. That's only a small share of the almost 9.2 million light duty vehicles sold in the United States that year.

Meanwhile, the Biofuels Market Expansion Act of 2011 was introduced in January 2011, but it has only four sponsors in the Senate and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere in this session.

And the future looks even more challenging with the expiration of a federal tax credit for ethanol at the start of 2012. "Without the 38-cent-per-gallon subsidy that went away Jan. 1, E85 prices are moving up," the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported. "It's still cheaper than gasoline, but the shrinking difference may not be enough to compensate drivers who get fewer miles per gallon because of the fuel's lower energy content."

If circumstances change between now and January 2013, we'll reconsider, but the outlook for this promise seems so dim for now that we’re rating it a Promise Broken.

As for the second promise -- "when I'm president, I will make sure that every vehicle purchased by the federal government" has a flexible-fuel tank -- this one has fallen short too.

Federal data show that 41 percent of federal vehicle purchases in 2010 were for E85 vehicles. That's clearly not "every vehicle," as Obama had promised. And while it does represent an notable increase compared to five years earlier, it's actually a slight decrease in percentage terms compared to 2008, the year before Obama took office. The absolute number of E85 cars also dropped between 2009 and 2010, according to the data.
The vehicle-purchase numbers look more favorable to Obama if you add together all types of vehicles that aren't traditional gasoline or diesel. In 2008, alternative-fuel vehicles collectively accounted for 44 percent. In 2010, that number rose to nearly 52 percent.
So Obama has made gains in boosting federal purchases of alternative-fuel vehicles, but on the specific promise he made, the numbers show that he's nowhere near bringing it to completion. We rated this a Promise Broken.