AAA Blunder on Ethanol Sets Off Firestorm of Criticism
Fox Business News Worsens the AAA Blunder with a Barrage of Stupidity
By Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher
THE AUTO CHANNEL
AUTO CENTRAL – On Thursday, January 3, 2013, we received a copy of a video interview produced by FOX Business News between Melissa Francis, host of FOX’s “MONEY” show, and Lauren Fix, who bills herself as “The Car Coach.”
The topic addressed in the interview was a recent editorial published by AAA that calls for the national suspension of E15 fuel sales because AAA claims that the gasoline-ethanol blend can damage vehicle engines. The AAA editorial was first published on December 13, 2012. This editorial followed by two weeks a similar AAA editorial that made the same claims. The two editorials can be found at the following links, respectively:
There was no reason given why AAA felt the need to reiterate the same information just two weeks apart under a slightly different wrapping. I presume they did it because they may have felt that there wasn’t sufficient public attention paid to the first editorial, and that it needed to be spiced up with a more dramatic headline. Or perhaps the first was a test to see if the AAA editorial would create undue backlash, and upon not receiving any great blow-back, they decided to take a harder stand. Or perhaps, if I were to be really cynical, which I often am, I would say that maybe the petroleum oil industry paid AAA more money to repeat the accusations of engine damage – all of which, by the way, are lies and/or gross distortions.
When the first of the two AAA editorials was made public via a press release on November 30, 2012, TheAutoChannel.com published the story. We merely published the story, rather than offer any counter information, because it seemed to us to be just another attempt by Big Oil to fight the EPA’s recommendations that E15 fuel (a blend of 15% ethanol with 85% gasoline) be allowed to be sold for use in vehicles manufactured since 2001.
On May 16, 2012, the American Petroleum Institute (API) staged a telephone press conference in which they set forth a retinue of negative assertions related to the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision on E15. API claimed everything from insufficient testing to the decades old oil industry lies that ethanol is inferior to gasoline and that it damages vehicle engines.
On that same day, TheAutoChannel.com published a fairly comprehensive
story that covered the API press conference, in which we generally
described the API assertions as “Gross Exaggerations and
Misinformation.” Actually, this short description was just a polite
overall criticism as compared to the specific comments that we set forth
within our report. Our story, along with the complete audio recording of
the API press conference and the earlier EPA press conference can be found
In addition to our May 16th story, we published several other opinion pieces that responded to claims made against E15 and the EPA decision by third parties, apparently on behalf the oil industry. Links to three of these items can be found immediately below. However, I'd like to especially point out the first story link because it covers the U.S. Court of Appeals decision against the oil industry lawsuit to stop E15. In its decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals stated that there is "No proof that any engine has been or would be damaged by E15..."
As I mentioned in an earlier paragraph above, we simply took the November 30th AAA editorial to be just another humdrum recitation of old anti-ethanol lies, and because we already have a significant body of work that we’ve done over the last several years about the benefits of ethanol, we didn’t spend any time confronting the AAA allegations.
BACK TO THE PRESENT
However, with the publication of the second AAA editorial and the aforementioned follow-on video interview produced by FOX News, we decided to take some action and delve deeper into the issue. From the comments and related links that we’ve received since last Thursday, it’s clear that the statements made by Melissa Francis and Lauren Fix met with wide scorn and disagreement.
After watching the interview, Ron Lamberty, Sr. Vice President of American Coalition for Ethanol, wrote to me, “…I was so stunned by the inaccurate remarks that I tried to count them (46 - but I may have missed one or two), and then I started going through the video to document each misstatement and provide the correct information. I'm up to 15 of them at a minute and a half . . .
The video interview, by the way, can be watched in its entirety at
The first, but certainly not the last thing that came to my mind when I originally saw the video was, “why isn’t someone from AAA being interviewed on the story?” But, frankly, that issue was quickly overshadowed by the barrage of stupidity that followed. In the email that I sent to FOX News, Ms. Francis and Ms. Fix I wrote:
"The information provided by Lauren Fix about E15 is almost completely untrue. Lauren's explanation of phase-separation and the food-price argument about corn are preposterously puerile. In fact, if you live in a cold climate and your fuel tank and lines have a tendency to collect condensation (water), which would then freeze and cause real damage, the solution is to put Dry Gas in the fuel tank. Dry Gas is alcohol. Alcohol is ethanol. Ethanol "absorbs" the water moisture.
Fuel left in an unused engine for an extended period of time can break down and cause a starting or running problem. This is true of all fuels, including and especially gasoline, which leaves gummy varnish like deposits. Sta-Bil, another product used to stabilize the gasoline left in dormant engines also contains alcohol to help prevent the gummy build up. And again, alcohol is ethanol. (See Sta-Bil footnote at bottom of page)
E15 will not damage the engines of vehicles older than 2012. It has been extensively tested. It can be safely used in all modern gasoline-powered vehicles manufactured since the early 1990's, whether they are "flex-fuel" vehicles or not. Incidentally, when the EPA conducted their tests on E15 and gave their "clean bill of health," they also tested E20 and had the same positive conclusions.
I have been test driving vehicles for 25 years and have regularly used various blend levels of gasoline and ethanol with no negative reactions. Furthermore, I own and drive a non-flex fuel 2002 Ford Taurus that I run on high blend levels of gasoline and ethanol. My vehicle suffers from no problems that are not normally associated with all gasoline-powered vehicles."
I waited a day for their individual or collective rely. In the meantime, I went back to the November 30th AAA editorial and then studied the subsequent December 13th AAA story that triggered the FOX interview.
On Friday, January 4th, I sent the following email to Michael Green, Manager of AAA Public Relations (Michael Green is listed on the AAA webpage as the contact person for more information about the stories, although the author of the two editorials is identified as Robert Darbelnet, CEO and president of AAA).
"Hello Michael -
Yesterday, I was made aware of a video story produced by Melissa Francis and FOX News that was based upon either the above titled AAA editorial written by your organization's CEO, or a very similar earlier AAA editorial that was released on or about November 30, 2012. By the way, please feel free to share this email with Robert Darbelnet and any other AAA staff member.
In the video, Ms. Francis introduced a guest, Lauren Fix, to comment on and explain the "warnings" made in your editorial. Although neither Ms. Francis nor Ms. Fix identified Ms. Fix as an official AAA spokesperson, she seems to have virtually acted in that capacity…
I found almost everything that Ms. Fix had to say about ethanol to be either a gross lie or a recitation of typical bad propaganda that has been spread by the oil industry and its lackeys over the past 80+ years. In a separate email, I made my opinion known to both Ms. Fix and Ms. Francis…
Michael, I would imagine that unless you can confirm Ms. Fix as an official spokesperson for AAA that you will not have any comments to make regarding her comments, and that's fine since the point of this email is not to get the AAA reaction to her comments. I'm simply including this episode as background for the questions that I do have regarding the above mentioned AAA editorial.
My questions to you are:
1. What oil-industry-independent "research-to-date" was Mr. Darbelnet citing that "...raises serious concerns that E15...could cause accelerated engine wear and failure, (and) fuel system damage...?"
2. What information do you have, other than unsupported oil-industry claims, that the EPA did not conduct tests sufficient to determine the safety of using E15 in gasoline-powered passenger vehicles manufactured in the past two decades?
3. Does AAA not consider that the independent E15 testing conducted by Ricardo (findings released September 2010) to be significant confirmation that E15 is safe for all modern gasoline-powered vehicles?
4. In paragraph 8 of the editorial, Mr. Darbelnet states that "Some of those supporting E15 admit the fuel may cause damage," and you give the example that "...some underground storage tank systems, both new and used, exhibited reduced levels of safety and performance when exposed to E15." Given that all fuel underground storage tank systems routinely experience problems, what information do you have - other than any oil-industry anti-ethanol biased research - that shows that E15 underground storage tanks experience problems that are greater and/or more frequent than underground storage tanks that are used for diesel, E10 gasoline, E85, or gasoline that contains no ethanol?
5. In addition, in regard to paragraph 8, how does this potential problem relate to vehicle engine damage, and wouldn't it be fair to say that combining the two points is just an irrelevant red-herring warning?
6. Does AAA agree with the overall level of warning that FOX News issued - which they based upon the AAA editorial - about E15, or did they overstate your concerns?"
I did receive a reply shortly thereafter:
Lauren Fix is neither an employee or spokesperson of AAA and her views are independent of ours. We did not work with either Fox or her prior to the interview. AAA’s views are expressly stated on our website…
In regards to your specific questions, I have passed them along to our engineering team to review. In regards to question four, I can say that the warning regarding storage tanks was made by the Renewable Fuels Association to fuel retailers and was not from research conducted by AAA. They would therefore be in the best position to say why they made that recommendation.
In response to this reply, I then wrote:
"Thanks for your quick reply and clarification confirming that Lauren Fix has no official relationship with AAA.
While I look forward to receiving the AAA engineering team's comments, I'm troubled by your response to my question #4 regarding the storage tanks. You wrote, "...the warning regarding storage tanks was made by the Renewable Fuels Association to fuel retailers and was not from research conducted by AAA. They would therefore be in the best position to say why they made that recommendation." However, the AAA story called for the suspension of the sale of E15 because you claim that it damages the engines of most gasoline-powered vehicles, and you offered as part of the proof that the ethanol industry concedes that there are problems. Let's face it, engine damage is the crux of the story; it is, in fact, the salient part of the entire denigration effort by the oil industry and anyone associated with them to stop ethanol: The (false) claim that ethanol damages engines.
RFA didn't issue a warning that consumers shouldn't use ethanol as an engine fuel and then cite a storage tank issue as the reason. The storage issue has absolutely no bearing on ethanol's capability as an engine fuel. AAA took the RFA warning out of context and made a leap that should never have been made. It would be like someone using the warning that's printed on plastic bags (the suffocation warning) to claim that carrying groceries in the bag makes the items being carried dangerous to eat. One thing has absolutely nothing to do with the other. It is entirely possible that a fuel can be the safest, most efficient and economical fuel to use in an engine, but requires some degree of care when storing. Would AAA recommend that people stop drinking milk because if it's not refrigerated it could render a person seriously ill?
As I pointed out previously, gasoline also requires care when storing, and is far more dangerous than alcohol. Why not issue a recommendation that all gasoline sales be suspended until the explosion/fire/storage/pollution problems related to gasoline are solved? If AAA or Mr. Darbelnet were so unclear as to the issues regarding ethanol underground storage that you can't respond to my question, then it should never have been included in the story, regardless of whether ethanol damages engines or not. If AAA is objective on the overall issue of ethanol versus gasoline, as is alluded to in the editorial, then a big mistake was made."
Michael Green’s reply was:
Our engineers will take a look at your questions and I appreciate your feedback. I must say that your very strong advocacy of E15 seems uncharacteristic of an independent news source.
Our main concern from the beginning is regarding consumer warranties. Nearly every automaker is on record saying that your car’s warranty will be voided if you use E15. This is of serious concern to AAA and should be of concern to anyone that owns a car. AAA believes that ethanol-blended fuels have the potential to provide motorists a clear choice at the pump that supports jobs, promotes energy independence and reduces fuel costs. Both E10 and E85 provide options for consumers at this point, and AAA would support a motorists’ right to choose E15 once basic thresholds have been met regarding consumer protections.
You rightly note that the U.S. Department of Energy rigorously tested E15. This research focused primarily on exhaust emissions and associated components such as catalytic converters. While this research was consistent with the agency’s mission, it never fully examined whether E15 might damage engines and fuel systems. While current research is not sufficient to oppose E15 as a product, the significant lack of consumer awareness and protection highlights the need for additional study.
Both the EPA and the ethanol industry recommend that motorists check with the manufacturer on whether their vehicle's warranty would cover E15 usage. AAA did this and found that automakers have approved less than five percent of cars on the road to use E15. Five manufacturers (BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen) state their warranties will not cover E15 claims. Eight additional automakers (GM, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo) state that E15 does not comply with fuel requirements specified in most owners’ manuals and may void warranties. The only vehicles on the road approved by manufacturers to use E15 include flex-fuel models, 2001 and newer Porsches, 2012 and newer GM vehicles and 2013 Fords.
The automakers’ position leaves a huge gap between the limited number of vehicles that automakers will cover and the vehicles the EPA ruled can use the fuel. This sort of conflicting information puts motorists at risk, and AAA believes it is inappropriate to sell E15 while these issues remain unresolved. It is for this reason we made public our call for additional education and more effective labeling at the fuel pump before we would support the sale of E15. AAA recommends the EPA, fuel producers and automakers collectively develop a long-term plan that promotes public education, while implementing improved labeling and warnings at the pump. Additional research also is necessary to better understand the full consequences of using E15 in older and newer vehicles.
After considering these comments, I wrote back:
"I appreciate your taking so much time to address my comments and questions. And I especially appreciate your recognition of our strong advocacy of ethanol. I say ethanol, in general, as opposed to just E15 because our support is for ethanol in general, not just a particular blend level.
However, should you have the occasion to do so, you'll find that The Auto Channel is also a very strong advocate of all domestic alternative energy solutions, and we have spent considerable time covering all possibilities. We have evolved to favor ethanol because of its ubiquitous production possibilities (it can be made almost anywhere, by almost anyone, from a wide variety of resources), and because it can be used immediately by virtually any modern gasoline-powered vehicle (to one extent or another) without expensive engine conversion and without requiring changes in local or national laws. The same is not true for CNG or propane, which we otherwise consider to be excellent alternatives.
Our primary objective in the adoption of an alternative fuel solution is not predicated upon environmental concerns, but upon economic opportunity. That's not to say that we don't appreciate an alternative fuel's environmental friendliness - we love clean skies and water as much as anyone - we just don't think that energy independence and a healthy environment need to be mutually exclusive.
Regarding the issue of The Auto Channel's media independence vs. advocacy, there's no inconsistency. We look for the truth and try to report it as truthfully as possible. When and if we learn that our position is incorrect or founded on incorrect information we change our opinion. We're not wedded to any financial remuneration that would spell our demise by changing our position. We have repeatedly asked for contrary information that would prove our position wrong, if it is indeed wrong. But the information never comes. What we get, if we get anything, is more recitation of old lies, distortions, and nonsensical gobbledygook.
Regardless of our feelings for domestic alternative fuel and energy solutions we do not alter our reporting on gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles, unless there is a particular "energy" reason for doing so. We can still faun over a Maserati or Ferrari regardless of the fuel it uses and what its MPG is. And we're as fascinated as the next guy with electric solutions; we're just realistic in how we appraise electric's potential in the next few decades.
TheAutoChannel.com contains over one million pages of content and our overwhelming position can only be defined as objective. As opposed to many alt-fuel advocates, we do not favor small vehicles versus large vehicles. We think that people should be able to buy whatever size vehicle they want and burn as much fuel as they want. The only concern we have is that the fuel should be domestically produced, be inexpensive, and not enslave us to foreign producers and questionable regimes. Moreover, we don't jingoisticly think that only America should benefit from an enlightened domestic fuels program, we think that all countries should do the same with respect to their respective resources.
We are aware of the warranty issue and the reluctance of auto manufacturers to accept responsibility for vehicles using a fuel that they don't explicitly recommend. But the manufacturers always have reluctance to change and always fight anything that is not part of their status quo, unless they perceive a significant marketing or financial advantage in doing so. If the manufacturers had their way they never would have abandoned leaded gasoline; they would have never adopted the use of catalytic converters; they might not have voluntarily accepted universal seat belts and airbags or many other safety features, etc., etc. So their reluctance is less indicative of qualitative or safety reasons then because of negative financial implications arising from competitive concerns or insurance claim vulnerability. Moreover, OEM personnel are as likely to be ignorant of alternative fuel features and specifications as non-industry personnel. Even those who are specifically tasked with marketing non-traditional fuel-powered vehicles are typically only semi-knowledgeable about their specific energy format and will very often repeat the most egregiously incorrect information about the other alternatives. Consequently, their misunderstanding of ethanol's benefits is rather simple to understand.
The answer, to us, is a national paradigm shift. Ethanol is the best engine fuel for most passenger and lighter commercial vehicles - history and the test of time has proven this. Even if the use of ethanol in any blend level did create engine damage, the answer is not to abandon ethanol; the answer is to immediately mandate that all applicable new passenger vehicles and light trucks to be sold in America be built with engines that are optimized to run on ethanol (not gasoline), and the government should provide a trillion dollars (since the administration seems so happy to dish out economic stimulus money) for whatever refitting is necessary for all vehicles produced since the mid-90's. However, the really good news is that because ethanol does not damage engines and can be used in very high blend-levels with little or no re-fitting, the government may not have to lay out very much money. In any event, the result would be a fantastic multi-year economic stimulus. Further to the warranty issue, let the government mandate that five or ten cents of every gallon of ethanol sold be set aside in a fund to reimburse the manufacturers for costs related to "ethanol caused" repairs, if any are reported and confirmed. Auto dealers would love for their service departments to have the extra work; they just don't want to have to foot the bill."
At this point it was late Friday so I didn’t expect to receive a reply, and didn’t get one. During my correspondence with Mr. Green I copied Lauren Fix, Melissa Francis and FOX News on everything. I wanted to see if they would comment on the AAA back and forth, or at the least my original comments to them. As of the time of this writing, Tuesday, January 8th, I have not received any response from Francis, Fix or FOX, and nothing further from AAA.
I did, however, receive an email from Christina Martin, Executive Vice President of the Renewable Fuels Association, on the point of contention that I raised with AAA about E15 underground storage. Ms. Martin forwarded this from one of her colleagues:
"You are correct, our statements were precautionary and stated in a way to prompt station owners to investigate their tanks and fuel compatibility - not just take a blanket statement by a handbook as sufficient. Page 10 of the retailer handbook states not all tanks may be compatible with E15… there was no testing that supported that statement, in fact DOE just finished testing on UST system materials late last summer.
Here are some facts to use:
• According to EPA Underground Storage Tank Program, there are 590,000 active underground storage tanks currently in America; there is a 70.9% compliance rate to prevent and detect leaks at these active USTs. That indicates there are 29.1% of the current tanks that are leaking or have serious potential to leak.
• Further, EPA UST program states there has been a steady decline in annual UST releases since 1990; the very same time period when ethanol blending, storage and dispensing has reached an all-time high.
• The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has studied ethanol’s potential to affect underground storage tanks and published their results in July 2012. Oak Ridge concludes that “in general, the materials used in existing UST infrastructure would not be expected to exhibit compatibility concerns when moving from E10 to E15.” Oak Ridge admits housekeeping issues like water contamination and microbial growth are more likely to have a negative impact on USTs than adding ethanol to gasoline."
So, as I alluded to in my first email to Michael Green, AAA took a small piece of information out of context, blew it out of proportion, and used it to help support the fallacious oil industry position that ethanol damages engines.
Also commenting on the AAA editorials was Bobby Likis, host of the nationally syndicated Car Clinic Radio Network: “I’m both surprised and disappointed in the entire premise of the AAA E15 article…In the 41 years I have been - and still am - hands-on in the diagnosis, service and repair of cars, I find the repeating of an already dispelled myth that E15 ruins engines distasteful and contrary to the results found in extensive EPA and university studies, as well as in my first-hand experience with over 175,000 cars that have rolled through my service shop. In 41 years, we have not diagnosed a single 'ruined' engine due to ethanol."
David Blume, perhaps the world’s leading authority on ethanol production and author of “Alcohol Can Be A Gas” had this to say about the AAA editorials: “Of course this isn't the first time AAA whored themselves to the American Petroleum Institute. The first time, in the 1930's had them conducting a phony test on phase separation in an attempt to prevent wider scale use of alcohol.” (1)
Incidentally, I’d like to point out that the oil industry used all of these anti-ethanol arguments years ago to try and discredit the government’s decision to deploy E10 gasoline blends – the gasoline that has become our standard regular and premium gasoline fuels. The claims weren’t true then, and they are not true now. Additionally, we do not hear of any consistent, universal problems from other parts of the world where they use higher ethanol-gasoline blend levels.
The oil industry has one goal: Keep us enslaved to gasoline and to keep us reliant upon foreign entities. AAA’s participation in this scheme, whether willing or unwittingly, is counter to America’s economic health. Unfortunately, as The Auto Channel has pointed out in the past, AAA is not the only “American” organization to be acting as stooge for the oil industry – the contamination runs very deep.
As I wrote to Mr. Green, even if the use of ethanol in any blend level did create engine damage in a gasoline-optimized internal combustion engine, the answer is not to abandon ethanol; the answer is to immediately mandate that all applicable new passenger vehicles and light trucks to be sold in America be built with engines that are optimized to run on ethanol (not gasoline), and the government should provide a trillion dollars (since the administration seems so happy to dish out economic stimulus money) for whatever refitting is necessary for all vehicles produced since the mid-90's.
For information on how and why the world became addicted to gasoline please read “The Rise & Fall of General Motors and the Subjugation of the Industrialized World” http://www.theautochannel.com/news/2012/04/06/031731-rise-fall-general-motors-and-subjugation-industrialized-world.html.
(1) Additional information about the ethanol tests conducted by AAA in the 1930’s, and the ensuing controversy from the questionable results, can be found in “The Forbidden Fuel – A History of Power Alcohol” written by Hal Bernton, William Kovarik and Scott Sklar. Pages 19-20 and 91-93.
Sta-Bil Footnote: After publication of this story we received a call from the PR firm for Sta-Bil's manufacturer GOLD EAGLE CO. They would like us to advise our readers that contrary to popular belief, and although there are fuel additives on the market that contain alcohol, that Sta-Bil does not. From my recollection as a Sta-Bil user, I recall that it did contain some type of alcohol. Various references on the Internet seem to confirm that a previous Sta-Bil formula did contain alcohol. But we could all be wrong. In any event, the official response from Gold Eagle Company concerning the Sta-Bil formula is: "STA-BIL® Brand Fuel Additives are a complex blend of chemistries. There is no one additive that accomplishes all of the water handling required to prevent water damage in an engine’s fuel system. We are unable to divulge the actual chemistry as it is a closely held trade secret."
The following is a list of some of the various engine fuel additives that we believe contain some type of alcohol.
The point being that alcohol cleans gasoline engines and removes water from the fuel system. If alcohol damages engines in the manner suggested by the oil industry (and AAA),
then why would anyone sell or buy these products?
• Gumout Winter Fuel Injector Cleaner - contains isopropanol alcohol 30-50%, plus detergent mixture, petroleum distillate(s) and trade secret formula.
• Mercury Marine Fuel System Cleaner - contains 15% isopropanol alcohol and napha solvent.
• CD2 Engine Tuneup - contains methanol (60-70%), Isopropanol (20-30%), 2-Butoxyethanol (10-20%) and Diacetone alcohol (10-20%).
• Turbo Octane Boost 108 - ingredient list includes only Methanol and t-Butyl alcohol.
• Neutra Fuel Stabilizer - primary ingredient = N-Butyl Alcohol.
• Evinrude BRP/OMC 2+4 Fuel Conditioner - contains 95% alcohol.
• K100 G Marine Gas Treatment, K100 MD, K100 MG, and other similar K-100 products: Primary ingredients = 2 Butoxyethanol, Ethylene Glycol, Monobutyl ether.
If anyone finds this information incorrect please let us know.