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AAA vs. RFA - an E15 analysis

The American Automobile Association’s call to halt the sale of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol, also known as E15, prompted a number of claims from Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen. An analysis:

Claim: “(AAA's) misplaced concern today, that E15 should be further tested before being offered for sale reflects a pathetic ignorance of EPA’s unprecedented test program before approving E15 for commercial use. The miles driven on E15 equate to 12 round trips to the moon and back.”

Analysis: Government testing was narrowly focused on E15's impact on vehicle emissions. The auto and oil industries tested engine durability and found that many vehicles on the road today could have mechanical engine failures resulting from the use of E15. More information here: Rebuttal of Critiques of the CRC Mid-Level Ethanol Blends Engine Durability Study

Claim: “AAA is claiming that this domestic renewable fuel has not been properly tested. … E15 is a safe fuel, as evidenced by the fact auto manufacturers are now providing warranty coverage for it.”

Analysis: AAA addressed E15, not ethanol as is most commonly used in blends up to 10 percent. While two auto manufacturers recently stated new vehicles are warranted for E15, the vast majority of automakers have not extended warranty coverage to E15 – and the two didn’t extend their coverage back to earlier models. More from automakers on E15 here:

Claim: “For years, refiners in vast swaths of the country have sold sub-87 octane fuel, which no auto company warranties today. … Big oil voids more warranties than E15 ever could.”

Analysis: Altitude affects the physical properties of gasoline. Not unlike water boiling faster at altitude, gasoline octane improves at altitude, meaning vehicles can use a lower octane-rated gasoline in these areas without the typical concerns of pre-ignition that would occur at lower altitudes. API recently opposed the expansion of 85 octane beyond the highest altitude markets and commented to the South Dakota Office of Weights and Measures: “Fuels policy changes that involve potential harm to consumer investments in their vehicles should be based on research demonstrating the impacts” – a principle API believes applies to E15 as well.

Claim: “If AAA weren’t so deep in the Big Oil politics, they would stop manufacturing concern about the efficacy of [E15] use.”

Analysis: AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet’s response: “We’re not doing the bidding of gasoline companies who are big enough to take care of their own interests. … We don’t need the oil companies to help us decide what our position’s going to be.”

RFA has repeatedly denigrated entities that criticize ethanol, the Renewable Fuel Standard or E15, including restaurant owners, environmental groups and meat and grocery producers. In doing so RFA regularly cites the refining industry – interesting, because the industry is the largest consumer of ethanol, invests in production of ethanol and other biofuels and regularly lauds the benefits of ethanol – including its high octane and blending characteristics that allow efficient production of reformulated gasoline required in some areas by EPA. (Note: RFA has yet to claim that the California Air Resources Board (ARB) is “in the pocket of Big Oil” – though ARB recently wrote in a letter to the American Motorcyclist Association that “E15 is not approved for sale in California, and if ARB chooses to allow E15 as a transportation fuel, it would take several years to complete the vehicle testing.”)

Claim: “You would think in this struggling economy, AAA would support a domestic renewable fuel that reduced wholesale gasoline prices by a national average of $1.09 per gallon.”

Analysis: This comes from an academic study that later was debunked by economics professors at MIT and the University of California-Davis. “We show that their results are driven by implausible economic assumptions and spurious statistical correlations,” Christopher Knittel and Aaron Smith wrote. The two demonstrated how the study’s modeling was so flawed that the same method could be used to make several unrelated claims, such as “ethanol production ‘increases’ the ages of our children.”