‘Fuel of the Future’ Methanol: Remembering a California Energy Failure

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From Master Resource

By Robert Bradley Jr. — April 4, 2023

“Methanol has been promoted as an alternative transportation fuel from time to time over the past forty years. In spite of significant efforts to realize the vision of methanol as a practical transportation fuel in the US, such as the California methanol fueling corridor of the 1990s, it did not succeed on a large scale.” ( – Bromberg and Cheng [1])

“[With] U.S. energy policy … there is always a promised solution, usually through a technological wonder, or group of wonders, that will settle America’s energy dilemmas once and for all.” (- Peter Grossman, U.S. Energy Policy and the Pursuit of Failure (2013), p. x.

The history of government and energy in the U.S. is important for its many lessons for public policy today. In light of the California Energy Commission taking on gasoline and diesel in California today (see yesterday’s post), a look back at a prior savior from oil is merited.

Ethanol was not competing well with oil products and lost its limited political support. Electric vehicles were an oddity. Natural gas vehicles were mostly on the farm. But with “energy security” questions aplenty, what was going to replace gasoline and diesel to save the country from OPEC, Arab OPEC in particular?

Consider these accolades from a 1985 Hearing of the Subcommittee on Fossil and Synthetic Fuels (Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives).

  • “America’s future as a transportation fuel” (Rep. Philip Sharp)
  • “The potential to be the number one alternative fuel of the future” (American Automobile Association)
  • “The best choice for this country’s third major transportation fuel, after gasoline and diesel fuel” (Chrysler)
  • “America’s energy ‘ace in the hole’” (General Motors)
  • “the most promising alternative to motor vehicle fuel for this country” (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

The California Energy Commission also championed methanol to “reduce the state’s dependence on oil to diversify its energy resources, enhance its energy security, and to preserve and improve its environmental quality.” [2]


Beginning in 1984, Congress debated measures to break the “chicken and egg” problem of methanol vehicles not being commercial because cars would not be purchased without more service stations, and service stations would not be constructed without more vehicles to use them. The Methanol Policy Act of 1984 proposed that the federal government acquire 1,000 vehicles in fiscal year 1985, begin a demonstration program for methanol-powered buses, and conduct other methanol-related studies.[3] 

The Methanol Policy Act of 1985 a year later proposed that the federal government purchase 5,000 methanol-powered vehicles per year beginning in fiscal year 1987, require the Environmental Protection Agency to test methanol buses from enactment through 1991, and mandate all mass transit purchased with federal assistance to be methanol powered in nonattainment areas under the Clean Air Act.[4]

California Dreaming

Methanol found a political home in the California Energy Commission. In 1983 the CEC began a Methanol Fleet Program originally intended to create a 100-station network of service stations to improve commercialization. 

After 30 stations, funding ran low. But in the first three years of the program, seven million miles of operation were recorded with Ford Motor Company vehicles. Two problems were reported — a limited and inconvenient refueling network and a two cent per mile operating cost disadvantage relative to gasoline.[5] 

With this experiment done, the CEC turned to dual fuel “flexible-fueled” vehicles designed to run on either unleaded gasoline (91% octane or better) or 85% methanol, 15% gasoline (M85).

As of 1985, public sector methanol vehicle programs were ongoing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, the State of Pennsylvania.  The DOE, U.S. Army, and U.S. Postal Service. In the private sector, Bank of America converted 300 vehicles to methanol.[6] The environmental attraction was as much as a 50% drop in ozone forming emissions compared to gasoline vehicles and almost 100% reduction in particulate emissions compared to diesel vehicles.[7]


Bromberg and Chen told the rest of the story:

M85 FFV vehicles in the U.S. peaked in 1997 at just over 21,000 with approximately 15,000 of these in California, which had over 100 public and private refueling stations. At the same time there were hundreds of methanol-fueled transit and school buses.

Ethanol eventually displaced methanol in the U.S. In 2005, California stopped the use of methanol after 25 years and 200,000,000 miles of operation. In 1993, at the peak of the program, over 12 million gallons of methanol were used as a transportation fuel.

In addition to California, New York State also demonstrated a fleet of vehicles, with refueling
stations located along the New York Thruway. [8]

[1] L. Bromberg and W.K. Chen, “Methanol as an alternative transportation fuel in the US: Options for sustainable and/or energy-secure transportation (2010)

[2] Methanol–Fuel of the Future, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Fossil and Synthetic Fuels, 99th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986), p. 1. These quotations can be found, respectively, on pp. 80, 96, 114, 43, and 32.

[3] Methanol as a Transportation Fuel, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Fossil and Synthetic Fuels and the Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 98th Cong., 2nd Sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1984).

[4] Methanol–Fuel of the Future, op cit.

[5] Ibid., p. 33.

[6] Ibid., pp. 44-45.

[7] “Statement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on H.R. 3355,” ibid., pp. 52-53.

[8] Quoted in Bromberg and Chen, “Methanol as an alternative transportation fuel in the US: Options for sustainable and/or energy-secure transportation, op. cit.