Cleaning Up Oil's Slick Efforts

The ethanol industry responds to a misinformation campaign

The story of the U.S. ethanol industry is one of hardworking people coming together to develop and harness the capabilities of an equally hardworking fuel.

The industry benefits not only the people who grow the crops or refine the grains and stover used to manufacture today’s biofuels, but also the consumer. And in the same way the men and women of the ethanol industry work to take care of their natural resources, they strive to ensure the safety and choices of the individuals and businesses that rely on their products. However, recent efforts by the American Petroleum Institute (API) to undermine progress in both the biofuels industry and the transportation sector while selling themselves as champions of the people provide an ugly example of how a positive story can be skewed in the media.

“Anything that you see on TV from the petroleum industry comes across very positive and proactive,” said Growth Energy Press Secretary Micheal Frohlich. “We hear them say, ‘we’re creating jobs at home, and ‘we’ve got an oil boom,’ and ‘we’re helping with infrastructure,’ but what they’re doing on the side is pushing misinformation, specifically about E15.”

In early January the Federal court upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to allow higher ethanol blends into today’s fuels after API and the Grocery Manufacturers Association petitioned for a rehearing regarding E15. Since then, API and other opponents of renewable fuels have upped their anti-ethanol campaign, citing “independent” research they’ve funded to support their claims, running a spate of negative ads and working with internet media organizations in a “pay for placement” manner that brings their information to the top of the screen whenever an internet search is conducted.

The apex of this “pay for placement” tactic involves a segment aired by Fox Business in which a reporter and AOL Auto writer Lauren Fix discuss the unproven negative effects of E15 on engines. The spot is roughly six minutes long and originally aired in November 2012, but has been making its rounds on the internet due to searches for information on E15. This approach allows API to draw attention away from the viability of ethanol as the industry reaches an important juncture in development and production.

“They realize that this year is one of those critical years where the blend wall can potentially be scaled,” Frohlich said. “I think they see that we’re cutting into their margins and another five percent could bump that up, and E15 could easily become E30, with higher octane properties.”

For an industry as new and promising as ethanol to cut into the oil industry’s profits would certainly be of concern to them, said Ryan Cunningham, Senior Vice President of Strategic Communications at The Glover Park Group.
“It’s plain dollars and cents. API wants every gallon of fuel sold in America to be 100 percent controlled by the oil industry. Renewable fuel is eating away at that control, so API has set out to confuse and alarm both consumers and Congress.”

If this story of smoke and mirrors sounds familiar, it is. In 2008 the Grocery Manufactures Association – the same group that partnered with API to overturn the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) – launched an ethanol disinformation campaign blitz that was later challenged by Iowa Senator Charles Grassley on the Senate floor. It’s also the same strategy used by fossil fuel interests campaigning against renewable electricity, or tobacco companies seeking to protect their own interests.

“The good news,” Cunningham says, “is that the facts – and the consumers – are on the side of renewables.”

Having the facts on one’s side doesn’t make the fallacies disappear, however, and over the past few years the ethanol industry has seen its share of criticism, learning in the process that open communication with the public is the best way to respond.

Groups like Growth Energy, Fuels America and The Global Renewable Fuels Alliance, to name a few, have formed to combat the negative press and image pushed by some opponents of renewable fuels. This is done by spreading their message of truth and clarity. The members of these groups – which include farmers, consumers, researchers and even gas station owners – work together to promote the idea that, as Fuels America says on its homepage, “renewable fuel is good for the U.S. economy, for our nation’s energy security and for the environment.”

The coalitions and consumers who support ethanol know this already, and are using a variety of platforms to communicate with individuals who may not be aware of the value behind biofuels. Resources like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and a host of blogs allow biofuel information to reach the public in an organic and honest manner.

For Frohlich, this kind of communication strategy just makes sense for this industry.

“I think grassroots is the way that we are ultimately going to win this battle. API has half the followers [on Twitter] and Fuels America really just started going last September. It’s taking some time, but there is a strong following, and it’s not just in the Midwest,” he said. “It’s people that recognize that oil is a finite resource and one day it will run out, so we need to do something about it. If we can make a cleaner burning, more renewable source of energy that helps Americans, and creates more US jobs, what’s holding us back?”

As gas prices near record highs for this time of year and President Obama sets a broad agenda for renewable fuels, Cunningham offers some advice for ethanol supporters.

“First, if you see an article or news story that attacks renewable fuel, write a letter to the editor defending the industry. FuelsAmerica.org has facts and figures you can use to fight back. Second, when you see good news about the renewable fuel industry, share it. Email it to your local newspaper and TV stations, and share it on Facebook and Twitter.”




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