WASHINGTON -- All automakers soon will have to slap a label on new flexible-fuel vehicles. It will remind buyers they can use either gasoline or an ethanol blend.
The mandate is a tiny part of a massive energy bill that President Bush is expected to sign as early as this week. It may cause an uptick in the use of fuel produced in farm states.
But to critics, the label symbolizes what they call the bill's gaping flaws. They say the measure papers over the nation's daunting energy problems and imposes no real duty on automakers to curb fuel use.
In fact, the bill extends for as long as a decade the fuel economy credits that automakers get for producing vehicles that can use ethanol - even if they never burn anything other than gasoline.
About 5 million of those vehicles are on the roads. The industry, especially the Big 3, keeps building them. But only about 300 filling stations across the country sell E85, fuel that is 85 percent ethanol.
Continuing the flexible-fuel credits eases automakers' obligations under federal fuel economy regulation. It likely will cancel out all other oil-saving provisions in the new energy bill, says Joe Loper, vice president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of government, business and environmental groups.
"When it came to addressing energy use in vehicles, Congress flat out missed the on-ramp," Loper says.