The drive to spread the use of E85 automobile fuel appears to be picking up speed. And that’s a good thing.

Terre Haute became a pioneer city for E85 in Indiana last May. That’s when the Jiffy Mini-Mart at 501 S. Third St. became the first station in Indiana to offer the fuel comprised of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The corn used to make ethanol is grown right here in the Midwest. And one of the refineries that turns the corn into ethanol — Lincolnland Agri-Energy — is located in Palestine, Ill., and another in Cloverdale is expected to begin production in 2007.

So any enhancement in the use of E85 can help lessen America’s reliance on oil from the tumultuous Middle East.

The first six weeks of 2006 indicate ethanol is creeping into the mainstream U.S. fuel market. That growth includes Wednesday’s announcements by automakers General Motors Corp. and Ford that they intend to increase their commitment to E85. Together, GM and Ford, working with VeraSun Energy — a renewable fuels company — and fuel retailers, will support the addition of dozens of E85 stations in Illinois and Missouri by the end of 2006. Two of the 100 Illinois fuel stations already offering E85 are in the Wabash Valley — the Jiffy Mini-Mart in Marshall and Fuel 24 in Chrisman. And there are now 27 E85 stations in Indiana, according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition.

They’re part of a national trend. E85 is currently available at 600 stations in the United States.

“We’re expecting an increase of an additional 2,000 in this year alone,” Michelle Kautz, director of communications for the coalition, said Friday.

In response, the automakers say they’ll also produce 650,000 more E85-compatible cars, known as flexible-fuel vehicles, in 2006. Several domestic-model “flex cars” (which also can run on regular gasoline) already are on the roads. Consumers can find a list of those at the Web site

E85 burns cleaner, is biodegradable and doesn’t taint groundwater. And, generally, it does not cost more than gasoline, which often contains just 10 percent ethanol. E85 has downsides, though. Mileage can drop 20 to 30 percent per gallon.

The tradeoff remains worthwhile, though, especially if it gives the nation a cleaner, less politically volatile alternative to oil.

President Bush vowed to commit greater resources to ethanol development in his State of the Union address last month. The Energy Bill, which took effect Jan. 1, offers fuel retailers a 30-percent tax credit up to $30,000 for the cost of installing E85 pumps. And on Feb. 2, Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Tom Harkin of Iowa called for oil companies to remove logistical obstacles for retail stations to include E85 pumps alongside those for regular gas.

Let the momentum continue.