How automobiles affect our water; about diesel fuel

GOING GREEN: John Viera, Ford’s global director of sustainability, talked about water usage, conservation, and sustainability initiatives at Boston’s GreenFest.
GOING GREEN: John Viera, Ford’s global director of sustainability, talked about water usage, conservation, and sustainability initiatives at Boston’s GreenFest. –BILL GRIFFITH

Most of us don’t equate heavy water usage with our vehicles. Of course, we carry a few gallons of water (mixed with antifreeze) in our radiators, and we know that having some in our gas tanks isn’t a good thing. But unless we’re driving a steam-powered vehicle, water is something we let the windshield wipers deal with when we’re behind the wheel.

However, it turns out that water conservation and usage are very much part of the industry, enough so that Ford sponsored a forum during last month’s Boston GreenFest on City Hall Plaza.

Two of the major issues are that the automobile and our over-paved cities combine to make for hazardous water runoff in our waterways, and all types of fuel (except solar and wind-generated electricity) use copious amounts of water in their production.


While those issues dwarf the amount of water used in automobile production, manufacturers still are working at cutting the amount used in their operations and on being environmentally conscious neighbors.

Even as two of Ford’s hybrids, the Fusion and C-Max crossover, were on display outside the tent in which he was speaking, John Viera, Ford’s global director of sustainability and vehicle environmental matters, introduced himself by saying, “I’m not a marketing guy. I’m not here to sell cars.’’

Instead, he said, “I’m the water guy, and Ford is a global company. We need water for our operations, and we need to use it efficiently.’’

With water becoming an increasingly scarce commodity worldwide, the issue is increasingly important, points emphasized by co-panelists Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, and Berkley Rothmeier, manager of the water program at the corporate advocacy company Ceres.

“I’ve been at Ford for 29 years,’’ says Viera. “In my first 27 years here, we built one new plant. Now we’ve built nine in the last two years in China and India, the world’s growth areas. Our goal is zero net water usage.’’

Viera cites operational costs, world-wide regulatory risks, and Ford’s public reputation as driving reasons for its water sustainability. “


Our chairman, William Ford, created a global water initiative in 2000 with the goal of decreasing our water usage 3 percent annually. We’ve met that goal. In 10 years, it’s saved 10.6 billion gallons of water, equal to the amount that flows over Niagara Falls in four hours. Now the goal is to save an additional 30 percent by 2015.’’

Ford’s corporate policy has led to developments such as a wet paint process where multiple colors can be painted on a car without water use and drying time in between.

Improvements Ford has incorporated in new (and some existing) facilities include green roofs (gardens), swales and marshes to capture runoff, and porous paving on parking lots to allow water to return to the aquifer.

Why porous paving?

The leading source of phosphorus in our rivers and harbors isn’t fertilizer, as many believe; rather, it’s from accumulated auto exhaust emissions on roads and parking lots, according to the CRWA’s Zimmerman.

He said almost 60 percent of the wastewater headed to the Deer Island treatment plant from Boston is the result of groundwater leaking into aging pipes, water that instead should be leaching through the ground and back into the aquifer instead of contributing half of the contaminants now reaching the Charles River watershed.

However, the major water sustainability challenge for vehicles remains fuel. It takes water to acquire and refine petroleum, to grow crops for biofuel, and to generate electricity.

“Electric generation is a big user of water,’’ says Zimmerman, meaning electric cars are really only green when their electricity is generated by solar or wind power.’’


“Corn-based ethanol is one of the highest users of water among bio-fuels,’’ says Rothmeier.

That’s why research is under way to find a way to convert cellulosic fibers into bio-fuel. The problem (to a non-scientific mind) is how to make the plant into a mash and turn the starches into sugars for the fermentation.

So what’s a truly environmentally dedicated driver to do while we wait for fuel cell technology to go into general use (and hydrogen refueling stations to arrive) and come down?

The best we can.

Diesel Redux

In almost all of Europe, diesel fuel costs less than unleaded gasoline. Why is this reversed in the United States?

Fellow New England Motor Press Association member Tim Plouff, who deals with fuel pricing on a daily basis as wholesale oil and gasoline sales and Shell branding manager, offers this explanation:

Diesel continues to be higher priced because of the low-sulfur refinement process now. It’s cleaner, better smelling, and has less environmental impact, but it’s more expensive. The road taxes—both state and federal—also are higher on diesel than gasoline, hence the greater street price. In reality, government is making more on the sale of diesel, and gasoline, than retailers are.

Here in New England, we also are impacted because heating oil is a derivative of diesel, so we get both higher prices on our home oil and our diesel fuel. To get a better comparison of the tax issue, compare off-road diesel prices at a retail site to on-road. Depending upon bulk or small-load delivery, the retail price will vary by 30 to 50 cents a gallon.

For certain buyers, diesel still makes sense—it gives extra range, good torque, requires fewer refueling stops, and works well for high-mileage drivers. There is something to be said for that extra push in the back when a turbo-diesel spools up.

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