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Why Does AAA and Big Oil Feel They Must Lie to America?

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Doesn't Lying About One Thing Taint the Veracity of Everything Else They Say?

By Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher

  • SEE ALSO: The Auto Channel Fights for the Truth about Ethanol Versus Gasoline

AUTO CENTRAL – May 23, 2013: This morning, I received what appeared to be a AAA press release concerning travel on this forthcoming Memorial Day Weekend. The release carries some of the usual information issued by AAA about projected numbers of Americans that will be traveling via automobile during the holiday. If nothing else, this bit of fluff becomes a highly valuable factoid used by hundreds of radio DJs and news readers around the country after they’ve told us which celebrity nitwits are celebrating a birthday.

However, this morning’s news release also included some additional information that is becoming more regular in AAA press releases: Misinformation and lies about ethanol.

The press release states:

“As travelers plan to journey an average of 690 miles, those filling up on high ethanol-gasoline blends like E85 (up to 85% ethanol), or mid-level ethanol blends such as E15 (15% ethanol), will notice that they’ll need to stop at the pump more often. Ethanol contains 33% less energy than traditional gasoline (and is more expensive when adjusted for this), meaning consumers will get fewer miles per gallon. Unfortunately, 95% of consumers surveyed by AAA were not familiar with E15 meaning that travelers could unintentionally fill up on the fuel, and end up spending more on gas and potentially wrecking their engines.”

“More and more ethanol is being forced into U.S. gasoline every year as a result of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) ¬ a policy that is diverting 40% of all U.S. corn to use in fuel instead of food. The RFS is also increasing prices for meat, poultry and dairy products, and will make Memorial Day cookouts more expensive. Since the RFS was expanded in 2007, prices for cereal and bakery products have risen 77%; prices for meat, poultry, fish and eggs have increased 78%; and prices for vegetable oil and fats (e.g., butter) are up by 444%.”

To begin with, I don’t understand the purpose of even including this information in a pre-holiday AAA travel press release. It’s sort of like giving some upcoming motion picture preview information and then warning America about how much toilet paper will be used and wasted in the theater rest rooms. It was a puzzling combination of issues, but as you'll read below I later learned why there was the mash-up of the divergent messages.

But for now, let me move on to the heart of the matter. The anti-ethanol information points provided in the press release are either lies, gross exaggerations, misstatements or all three.

1. The press release implies that E15 will be used by a significant number of Americans. If this was actually true, it would be great news to the ethanol industry. However, so far E15’s availability is so limited in America that contemplating its use this weekend is very close to “none” (if viewed on an overall fuels-to-be-purchased pie chart). Consequently, even if E15 had the negative effects that is claimed – which it doesn’t – the overwhelming majority of holiday travelers are more likely to encounter a visitor from Mars this weekend.

2. While it is true that ethanol has less “energy” per gallon than gasoline when calculated according to BTU-style measurements, the energy content has nothing to do with why a high ethanol level blend might deliver less miles per gallon of fuel. The vehicles will get less mileage because the engines are optimized for gasoline. If the same engines were optimized for ethanol they would get as much or more miles by using ethanol. Even flex-fuel vehicles are optimized to run on gasoline. Although FFV engines might have some component parts that are supposedly more ethanol-friendly, they are not ethanol optimized so a flex-fuel engine will deliver less miles with E85 than regular gasoline (E10).

Another way to explain and prove this point is that diesel fuel (also made from petroleum oil) has more “energy” per gallon than gasoline. However, if you try using diesel in your gasoline-optimized vehicle you will get much less MPG – in fact, the engine might not start. The use of the content issue is just hocus-pocus.

3. But wait, it’s worse then just hocus-pocus misdirection. The press release then uses the 33% less energy figure as a blanket measurement to tell you how much mileage you will lose and then uses the lower mileage figure against the lower cost per gallon of a higher ethanol blend fuel to tell you that the cost savings isn’t worth the effort. But the 33% loss is a theoretical number. The true on-the-road figure is probably closer to just a few percentage points, perhaps as much as 10% depending on the blend level. So if you buy a gallon of E85 that costs 25% less than regular gasoline, but you lose 5% or 10% in miles, you still have a nice net gain. Consequently, using ethanol would be less expensive.

4. Then, according to the press release, AAA says that in their study 95% of all those surveyed are not familiar with E15, which means that they could unintentionally fill up with E15 “…and end up spending more on gas and potentially wrecking their engines.” So in this statement they have issued an irresponsible warning and an insult, compounded with a lie. First, as I said in #1 above, where will the drivers find E15?

Second, the press release is suggesting you don’t know how to read. E15 equipped pumps and hoses are marked at least as clearly as diesel pumps and hoses. Yes, some “very happy” holiday revelers will undoubtedly mistake a water hose for a tire air-hose, and some will leave their Big Gulp drinks on the roof of their cars as they drive away, but the damage of losing a $2 Mountain Dew to carelessness is far greater than any damage that will happen to a gasoline-powered engine that uses E15 fuel – whether the E15 use is unintentional or intentional.

5. This brings me to AAA’s threat of damage. The text in the press release simply tells the public that E15 will result in “…potentially wrecking their engines.” They don’t state how the “wreckage” might occur; they don’t indicate the nature of the damage; and they offer no statistical information concerning the likelihood of any such damage. It is simply an over-stated irresponsible unproven warning.

U.S. government testing has proven that E15 (and E20) will not damage gasoline-powered vehicles manufactured after at least the year 2001. Testing conducted by Ricardo Laboratories, the world’s most respected private fuel testing company has proven that E15 will not damage passenger vehicles manufactured since the early 1990’s. And historic testing conducted on pure ethanol and various blends of ethanol-gasoline for more than 100 years have proven that ethanol does no more damage to an internal combustion engine than gasoline, and in fact that ethanol is safer to use than gasoline.*

6. The press release then trots out the old, discredited, food-vs.-fuel argument to try and blame higher food prices and world hunger on corn-based ethanol. American farmers grow as much corn as they do because there is a market for ethanol. If there was no market for ethanol the farmers would not grow as much corn; it’s just that simple.

Anti-ethanol forces create the image that corn targeted for consumption at Memorial Day or 4th of July picnics or for starving third-world people is suddenly redirected to the greedy ethanol producers. This is just not the case. The overwhelming majority of the corn is grown because of known demand from ethanol producers.

Food prices have increased because of “transportation costs” but it is not because the corn is being used to produce ethanol. The food prices have increased because of higher oil-based transportation fuel costs: gasoline and diesel. Food costs have also increased because of marketing costs which have often been related to packaging cost increases. One of the reasons for packaging cost increases is the higher printing costs due to inks costing more. The ink is manufactured from petroleum oil. Increases in the price of oil are pushing up food prices, not ethanol production. In any event, ethanol can be produced from many more raw materials then corn, so if AAA had any concern for the American public, but still didn’t like corn, they would advocate the use of other items – many of which are non-edible materials.

The Same Old Story

This isn’t the first time that AAA has carried water for the oil industry. AAA’s efforts to mislead the public about ethanol dates back to at least the 1930's when they staged comparative testing and then doctored the results.

Just this past winter, AAA issued two E15 warnings. These warnings became the subject of a FOX News broadcast that only exacerbated the lies and misinformation contained in the AAA warnings. The Auto Channel challenged FOX and AAA on these warnings in an editorial I wrote that was published on on January 8, 2013 and subsequently widely republished on other websites. (AAA Blunder on Ethanol Sets Off Firestorm of Criticism)

Despite assurance from AAA that they would respond to the points we made in that editorial we have received no further information from them. A few weeks ago, on April 26th, just a couple of days before I went to Washington DC to help give a presentation about E15 to a Congressional Staffer meeting, I reminded AAA that I was still waiting for some explanation to the wrong information contained in the winter warnings. The same head of AAA public affairs said he would get back to me in two weeks. Four weeks have gone by since that promise, and more than four months since the earlier promise.

Fox News has never replied, in any manner.

And now, the update:

After we initially published this editorial on Thursday morning I was informed that the AAA Memorial Day press release didn't actually come from AAA; seems it was issued by American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers, a big oil pro advocacy group headed by Charlie Drevna. Apparently AFPM took some information from AAA and used it in a press release to make it look like it was from AAA and thereby give the overall information an air of objectivity. Sounds like the kind of misrepresentation and sleezy pr stunts that I've known Drevna and his group likes to do going into a holiday weekend.... Hey Charlie, thanks for the confirmation of your lack of ethics.
For more on Drevna and AFPM see AFPM Issues Panic-Striken Warning Against Ethanol to Keep America Addicted to Foreign Oil

So I say to AAA, AFPM, the American Petroleum Institute, and to all the other entities that the oil industry pays to create and disseminate negative ethanol information: If this is merely a case where you have been caught telling lies in an effort to keep America chained to gasoline and to keep ripping off the public, you have no need to reply.

If you really think you are not lying and you have any serious and reliable information that substantiates any of the negative things you claim about ethanol please let us know what it is. We are not on anyone’s payroll. If gasoline is the best fuel… the best for our vehicles and for our country… then tell us what it is and we will shout it from the roof tops. But don’t tell us the same garbage lies.

• ADDITIONAL UPDATE - May 25, 2013:

Shortly after publishing the above editorial, I notified both AAA and Edelman Public Relations (the PR firm that sent me the press release) about my published response. On Friday, yesterday, I received replies from both. AAA denied any knowledge of the press release or relationship with the oil lobby and stated that their only interest is the American motorist.

Edelman PR stated that the email they sent me wasn't a press release but a "media pitch including news and data points." The agency representative went on to say that she had not been "speaking on behalf of AAA, AFPM or anyone else and that it was by no means an official statement." Of course, the original press release email from this person at Edelman PR offered to arrange for me to speak with "a representative from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers or representatives...or consumer advocacy groups who can provide further insight into how government ethanol laws are creating problems for consumers this weekend."

Edelman PR is the public relations firm for both American Petroleum Institute (the primary mouthpiece for the oil industry) and Saudi Arabia (the world's #1 producer of oil).

These were my responses:

TO AAA: "Thank you for your reply and your comments this morning...Knowing for certain that AAA was not involved clears up certain aspects of the text, while making the effort by Edelman Public Relations all the more insidious (in my opinion).

...I would only respond by saying two things: If AAA is on the side of the motorist/consumer and you have no allegiance to the oil industry then you owe it to the motorist/consumer to get facts correct. The two press release warnings that AAA issued in November and December went far beyond simply advising consumers about potential warranty issues. The releases made definitive claims about the negative effects of using ethanol that were not true. The effects of those false claims were then amplified by the ridiculous story done by FOX News. You may not have endorsed the FOX story or the persons talking about the AAA warnings before they produced the show, but unless you can say that AAA subsequently contacted FOX and Lauren Fix and took them to task for taking the AAA warnings out of context, then your silence is tantamount to endorsement.

The second thing is that I agree with your comment that "A large AAA oil-industry conspiracy to conspire against ethanol makes good...headlines." But if it's not your intention to get that kind of publicity then I suggest you don't issue false and misleading information. I didn't write the AAA warnings press releases, AAA did. And if I am incorrect in the statements that I made about the AAA statements then you should have had your engineers get back to me in a timely manner. And now that you are aware of how AAA's "Memorial Day Weekend" projections were taken out of context by the oil industry to further denigrate ethanol, you should make them aware that you don't appreciate their deceitful tactics in lying to motorists and consumers."

TO EDELMAN PR: "Sorry if I misconstrued the meaning of the email you sent me yesterday.

But since you included several pieces of AAA information that were included in AAA-issued press releases and offered to put me in contact with various people and groups related to the claims made in the email text, including AFPM, it sure looked like a press release. After all, Edelman Public Relations is not working for The Auto Channel, and I didn't request any information from you prior to receiving your email, and to the best of my knowledge Edelman does represent at least one oil industry organization. So based upon my 40+ years of personal hands-on experience in marketing and advertising I would call your email a 'press release.'

However, now knowing that the email was just intended to be a 'media pitch,' I'm curious as to why you, or others at Edelman, chose to disguise the comments about E15 as if they were written by AAA? I'm also curious to know where the misinformation about E15 came from? If your email wasn't an official statement from one of Edelman's clients, who on Edelman's staff concocted the lies? And after reading my editorial responses to the points why haven't you circled back around to whomever it was that wrote the false and deceitful information and told them of my comments?"

* Some rubber and metal components used in vehicle engines and drive trains manufactured prior to the early 1990's are susceptible to alcohol erosion and corrosion. It can also be true for other non-automobile engines manufactured before and after the 1990’s. It is for this reason that higher ethanol-gasoline blends are not recommended for vehicles manufactured before the early 1990’s and for other types of engines. I know of no one involved in the ethanol industry that doesn’t adhere to this and instruct users accordingly.

By the way, gasoline is also corrosive and it can erode certain materials, as does ordinary water.