Ethanol labeling at the pump: A high-octane fight

Source: By: Darius Dixon, Politico • Posted: Monday, December 3, 2012

A motorist filling his take with an ethanol mix is shown here. | AP Photo

The AAA wants a stop to the sale of ethanol until a better labeling system is devised. | AP Photo

AAA and the renewable fuels industry are locking horns over ethanol.

The clash came Friday, when the motorist advocacy group called on the Environmental Protection Agency and gas stations to stop the sale of the E15 ethanol gasoline blend until a better labeling system can be devised to protect drivers and their vehicles.

That prompted biofuels groups to return fire.

“If AAA weren’t so deep in the Big Oil politics, they would stop manufacturing concern about the efficacy of ethanol blend use and report enthusiastically about ethanol’s consumer gasoline price savings,” Renewable Fuels Association President Bob Dinneen said in a statement Friday. He spoke out after AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet said the fuel blend could damage cars of unsuspecting motorists.

E15 contains 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline, compared with the 10 percent ethanol concentration that federal regulators previously allowed. The higher ethanol blend has drawn concerns about potential harm to engines in older-model vehicles.

In a statement earlier Friday, Darbelnet said that “the sale and use of E15 should be suspended until additional gas pump labeling and consumer education efforts are implemented to mitigate problems for motorists and their vehicles.” Darbelnet also expressed his views to USA Today.

“Bringing E15 to the market without adequate safeguards does not responsibly meet the needs of consumers,” he said.

But Dinneen came out with guns blazing, saying AAA’s “misplaced concern” reflects “a pathetic ignorance of EPA’s unprecedented test program before approving E15 for commercial use.”

About 12 million out of the more than 240 million light-duty vehicles on the roads are approved by manufacturers to use E15 gasoline, according to a AAA survey of auto manufacturers.

The group argues that consumers using E15 could “end up with engine problems that might not be covered by their vehicles’ warranties.”

AAA said it supports the “development and use of alternative fuels” but that its recent survey of motorists found that about 95 percent of consumers haven’t heard of E15 — let alone know that its use in pre-2001-model-year vehicles hasn’t been approved by EPA or some manufacturers.

BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen have said their warranties will not cover fuel-related claims caused by the use of E15, AAA notes, while seven other automakers, such as Ford and Honda, have said the use of E15 “does not comply with the fuel requirements specified in their owner’s manuals and may void warranty coverage.”

RFA’s Dinneen maintained that “E15 is a safe fuel, as evidenced by the fact auto manufacturers are now providing warranty coverage for it.”

“AAA’s antipathy toward ethanol is well known and tired,” he said. “But when put in contrast to gasoline quality issues AAA continues to ignore, one has to wonder whose interest they’re truly trying to protect, consumers or oil companies?”

Dinneen argued that AAA has turned a blind eye to refiners that sold sub-87 octane fuel for years, although auto companies will not cover any damage caused by that fuel.

Another ethanol group, Growth Energy, chimed in as well.

“I think AAA customers are better served when the AAA sticks to what they do best, helping with car troubles and offering travel discounts, rather than using hyperbole and baseless statements on fuel quality — an area in which they have no expertise,” said a statement from Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis.

On Friday afternoon, Darbelnet told POLITICO that AAA didn’t take its marching orders from the oil industry.

“We’re not doing the bidding of gasoline companies who are big enough to take care of their own interests,” he said. “We don’t need the oil companies to help us decide what our position’s going to be.”

For its part, EPA said that the agency “shares AAA’s concern over consumer awareness of the use of E15.”

The EPA’s website says several types of vehicles, including all motorcycles, and pre-2001 model cars and light-duty trucks shouldn’t use E15. The EPA also doesn’t require anyone to sell or market E15.

“To address these concerns, EPA has been working with AAA and other stakeholders to help inform consumers about the use of E15 and recently required all retailers that sell E15 to label fuel pumps with a prominent orange and black label that EPA developed with the Federal Trade Commission,” the agency said in an email.

But given the number of consumers who don’t know what E15 is, Darbelnet said, it was evident that the current labeling system couldn’t compete with all the advertisements and other distractions at the fuel pump.

He also insisted that the organization isn’t on a warpath against the biofuels industry.

“Our purpose is to make sure that the American motorist is properly informed about what could occur if they misfuel their vehicle,” he said. “We don’t have an ax to grind with renewable fuels. To the contrary, one of the benefits of ethanol is that it is going to, over time, reduce our dependence on … foreign fuel sources.”