Wow. As if the debate around using ethanol to fuel cars weren't already complicated enough, now an Islamic scholar has suggested that driving or even riding in a vehicle fueled by ethanol could be considered a sin for observant Muslims.

The opinion comes from Sheikh Mohamed al-Najimi, of the Islamic Jurisprudence Academy in Saudi Arabia. It is based on the part of Islamic law derived from a statement by the prophet in which dealing with alcohol in any form--including purchase, sale, transport, consumption, and manufacture--is strictly prohibited.

The sheikh urged that the issue of ethanol-powered vehicles should be studied by Islamic religious scholars, and stressed that the statement was not a fatwa but simply his own opinion. He noted that any ban would extend beyond Islamic countries to cover observant Muslims in other countries. This might include tourists, students abroad, and other groups.

The pros and cons of ethanol as a vehicle fuel are far too lengthy to cover in this post, so we're offering just a few high points here.

PROS:

- Ethanol can be made from various plants that pull carbon dioxide from the air as they grow, so burning it just returns that CO2 to the atmosphere, cutting net CO2 emissions.

- Plants can be grown in the United States, so vehicle fuel could be domestically produced, displacing imported petroleum.

- Ethanol blends with gasoline, as in the E85 that's sold at a few hundred Midwestern gas stations.

CONS:

- Producing ethanol from corn, as we do in the US, is the least efficient way to "grow fuel". The sugar cane used in Brazil provides twice as many gallons per acre, and the real productivity lies in other forms of biomass like switchgrass--none of them anywhere close to volume production.

- The "wells to wheels" energy balance of ethanol needs to be carefully assessed, since industrialized agriculture emits large amounts of CO2 and ethanol distilling uses lots of fresh water.

- Ethanol has to be sold within about 300 miles of where it's refined, and must be trucked rather than sent through petroleum pipelines.

- The "Flex-Fuel" vehicles produced by domestic carmakers are considered by many analysts a scam to meet CAFE mileage laws via additional credits for flex-fuel ability. Most of those vehicles will only ever burn gasoline, and many owners have no idea their cars can run on E85.

The ethanol debate will rage for years to come, but clearly this new wrinkle adds yet another concern for drivers who are also observant Muslims.

2009 Chevrolet HHR E85

2009 Chevrolet HHR E85

[SOURCE: Al Arabiya via TreeHugger]