A New Biofuel Shakes Germany's Eco Cred

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Thomas Peter / Reuters

A woman holds a petrol-pump nozzle at a gas station in Berlin

A few years ago, Germany's Angela Merkel earned herself the nickname the "Climate Chancellor" after she put global warming at the top of her agenda. Now her government is facing a barrage of criticism over its latest green initiative: the introduction of a new biofuel-gasoline blend known as E10. In an odd twist for the proudly eco-conscious nation, groups from opposition parties to environmental activists are speaking out against the new fuel, while surveys suggest that 70% of Germans have rejected it at forecourts. The controversy has Germans asking themselves, Has the government gone one planet-saving step too far?

When the E10 biofuel mix — which contains a 10% bioethanol blend — was rolled out across Germany at the beginning of February, Merkel's government lauded it as a way to help the country both cut down on its greenhouse-gas emissions and decrease its dependence on foreign oil. E10 contains twice as much ethanol as the previously used biofuel blend, which has an ethanol content of 5%, and is considered to produce less CO2 emissions than regular gasoline. But motorists have boycotted the new petrol fearing that it may cause engine damage. Some have posted blogs complaining that on E10 their engines produce strange noises and say the biofuel leads to increased petrol consumption. E10 has been delivered to almost half of the 15,000 petrol stations across Germany, but some regular pumps are running dry as motorists continue to opt for conventional gas — even though it's more expensive. "It's been a fiasco, a p.r. disaster," says Gerd Billen, president of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations. "Consumers want a guarantee that car manufacturers will pick up the bill if their vehicles are damaged by E10."

Despite the public backlash, the government has refused to back down on the introduction of E10. After holding crisis talks with representatives of the automobile industry, oil producers and consumer groups in Berlin on Tuesday, officials insisted that the new biofuel would help lead to a greener Germany. "All those in the meeting are backing E10 to protect the climate, safeguard the environment and provide greater energy security," Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen told reporters. "We need to reduce our dependency on oil," he said, adding that Germany needs to take the lead and stop supporting and financing unstable oil-producing regimes like Libya's.

Germany launched E10 in order to comply with a European Union directive for biofuels to account for at least 10% of all fuel in the transport sector by 2020. But many consumers and green campaigners are skeptical about the environmental benefits of the biofuel mix. Some green advocates argue that biofuels may actually end up causing more damage to the environment, since rainforests have to be cleared to make way for the corn crops used in the production of biofuels. And car analysts say they don't buy the government's argument that E10 will help cut Germany's reliance on foreign oil reserves. "Ethanol content of 10% won't significantly reduce oil dependency; we need 30% to 50% to make a difference. The car industry uses a huge amount of oil," says Stefan Bratzel, a car expert at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach. Another issue, Bratzel points out, is that as more farmland is made available in Germany and Europe for biofuel production, that could cause a rise in food costs. "Germans aren't going to stomach higher food prices," he says.

Following the talks on Tuesday, ministers tried to reassure the public that motorists would in the future be better informed about E10, with Environment Minister Röttgen announcing that carmakers had agreed to provide legally binding information on which cars can safely use E10, and that a list would be displayed at petrol stations. But opposition parties, including the Green Party, have said the government is wasting time and money on E10. Instead, they argue, the focus should be on promoting electric and hydrogen-powered cars or introducing a lower speed limit on motorways to reduce CO2 emissions. And critics accuse Merkel of bowing to pressure from Germany's powerful car-industry lobby and steering clear of charges that the new E10 fuel is just an easy way for car manufacturers to avoid changing engines or technology to accommodate more common gas alternatives.

"Germany still needs a sustainable mobility concept," says Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for Economic Research, noting that Germany lags behind other countries when it comes to using biofuels in cars. "Biofuel gasoline has been on the market in the U.S. for years, and Sweden and Brazil have been using it as well and they haven't encountered any problems," says Kemfert. E10 was introduced in France in April 2009 and the launch was said to have gone smoothly.

For now, Germany's government is pushing ahead with the E10 rollout. But the uproar has put the spotlight on Merkel's environmental policy, forcing the government to try to find a way to meet ambitious climate-change goals while convincing consumers that the new biofuel is a change for the better.