AAA chapter says oil group’s ad misrepresents ethanol position

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, July 19, 2013

A state chapter of North America’s largest motor club is accusing the oil and gas industry’s largest trade group of misrepresenting its position on ethanol in a new ad campaign seeking repeal of the renewable fuel standard.

The television ad by the American Petroleum Institute began airing in several states and Washington, D.C., early this week and features a mechanic discussing the alleged pitfalls of increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline. The mechanic warns that AAA says too much ethanol could cause engine damage that’s not covered under warranty (E&ENews PM, July 15).

AAA’s branch in South Dakota, one of the states where the ad is airing, said in a statement yesterday that the ad misrepresents the motor club’s position on E15, or gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol.

“The commercial is the latest in a series of communications on social media and elsewhere which portray AAA as being ‘anti-ethanol.’ This is not the case,” the motor club said. “AAA South Dakota remains a strong supporter of the development and use of alternative fuels such as ethanol. The auto club believes ethanol fuels provide motorists with a choice at the pump that promotes U.S. energy independence, supports American and South Dakotan jobs, and can save the consumer money.”

Last year, U.S. EPA completed the approval process to allow for E15 to be sold for use in cars with model years 2001 and newer, based on testing by the Department of Energy of 86 vehicles. The addition of more ethanol in gasoline — up from the 10 percent blend that’s the current norm in gas stations today — was widely seen by biofuels supporters as expanding the market for domestic fuel.

Oil, auto and livestock groups opposed the approval of E15. AAA headquarters jumped into the Beltway fray over ethanol last fall when it released a statement calling on EPA to suspend sales of E15 until more testing is complete and the agency increases consumer awareness of the fuel.

The motor club said it found that 95 percent of Americans were not aware that E15 existed, while only 5 percent of the nation’s cars on the road today were approved to use E15 under their warranties. The group said it had many questions over the fuel’s safety for car engines and about how EPA planned to prevent misfueling by cars not approved for its use. AAA cited engine studies done by a research organization funded by the oil and auto industries on a few cars (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2012).

Biofuel groups responded with fury to AAA’s statement, accusing the motor club of taking a stance on an issue where it doesn’t have expertise and aligning itself with the industry. AAA’s stance also prompted backlash from at least one alternative roadside assistance company, Better World Club, which started marketing itself as a supporter of E15

“They are the ones who are putting the fear into politicians that voters will be stranded on the side of the road if they use E15. It’s all nonsense,” the company says on its website of AAA.

The American Coalition for Ethanol, an ethanol trade group based in South Dakota, praised the South Dakota affiliate’s response to the new API ad.

“I think what this shows is the amount of support here in the heartland of the nation for ethanol and higher ethanol blends like E15,” said Ron Lamberty, ACE’s senior vice president. “To have an office state their support for ethanol within hours of the ad airing in this market indicates how much people want their choice at the pump and should indicate why Big Oil is running such a dishonest campaign.”

Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council, said he was skeptical that the national motor club was changing its position on E15.

“I think what we’re seeing is the AAA chapters starting to express their disappointment and perhaps nonalignment with the politics of AAA headquarters,” Coleman said. “I think it’s a dangerous thing for AAA because if they become the Big Oil roadside assistance company publicly, they’re going to take a membership hit because people don’t associate them with Big Oil.”

When asked to respond to the South Dakota chapter’s viewpoint, Michael Green, a spokesman for AAA’s national office, said in a statement that AAA supported consumers having a right to choose among fuels at the gas pump but that it still had issues with E15.

“AAA continues to have concerns about E15 causing confusion for motorists and the potential for this blend to damage certain vehicles, but API’s ad campaign appears to focus on the elimination of the renewable fuel standard — a position AAA does not share,” Green said. “AAA was not consulted regarding the use of its brand in this campaign.”

At an earlier congressional hearing this year in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet said his group’s position had been misconstrued as “anti-ethanol.”

“Some groups have chosen to misrepresent AAA’s position and the reasons that we have called for E15 sales to be suspended, rather than discuss the material concerns we have raised on behalf of motorists,” Darbelnet said. “AAA is not opposed to ethanol. We are concerned with the way that this one particular blend has been brought to market and is being sold to consumers.”

API spokesman Carlton Carroll expressed confusion over the South Dakota chapter’s message.

“It’s unclear what the issue is because AAA has warned consumers that higher levels of ethanol can damage engines,” he said. “Our ad campaign is designed to educate American consumers on the danger of higher ethanol mandates.”