ACE speakers: Craft a positive message

By Holly Jessen | September 23, 2010

All too often, the ethanol industry forgets to trumpet the positive messages about ethanol and, instead, gets sidetracked by the negativity, said Lars Herseth, president of the American Coalition for Ethanol. "I think we generally take the bait."

Telling ethanol's positive story was an important theme at ACE's 23rd Annual Ethanol Conference & Trade Show. The event, held in Kansas City in early August, brought together ethanol supporters to talk about the ethanol message, the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, the blend wall and more.

Ron Lamberty, ACE's vice president and director of market development, also talked up the importance of a positive message. "Ethanol is getting clobbered in the battle of public opinion," he said. He made the analogy of a daughter bringing a new boyfriend home and saying he doesn't gamble much, he's not an alcoholic and he's never killed anyone.' The parents' impression of the new boyfriend might not be very good, he said.

And yet, that's the way that some have tackled introducing ethanol. In recent months, Lamberty said, a lot of money was spent trying to convince people what ethanol will not do, such as not closing beaches due to ethanol spills. Instead, he said, the industry should be focusing on what ethanol can do. After all, that type of message isn't really giving oil much of a black eye--people use petroleum every day to drive to work and go on vacations. "Gasoline might be the black sheep of the family but to most people, he's still family," he said. People need to know that ethanol can power their cars to and from work and on vacations. That it can reduce emissions, help keep fuel prices low and create or retain jobs. "Let's get back to talking about the benefits of ethanol," he said. "We don't need to spend the time convincing people oil is bad, it does that itself."

At another point in the conference, Brian Jennings, ACE's executive vice president, singled out the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit and the blend wall as the two most important policy challenges facing the industry. Although the renewable fuels standard signals the industry to produce more ethanol, there's a 30-year-old limit in the Clean Air Act that restricts ethanol blending to E10. The EPA has been considering the E15 waiver for a year and a half now and, in June, delayed the decision for the second time. Now there are rumors that E15 will be approved only for model years 2007 and newer, although the ethanol industry has maintained that the blend is safe for all vehicles, regardless the year. ACE has calculated if the EPA goes through with the model year limit it would open up E15 to only two out of every 10 cars on the road. "It sounds like a solution that only a government bureaucrat could come up with," he said.

Wally Tyner, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, told conference attendees that the blend wall isn't in the future, it's now. In addition, he had some words of caution for the future of cellulosic ethanol. The renewable fuels standard includes 15 billion gallons of traditional ethanol and 4 billion gallons of "other advanced" biofuels, which includes sugar cane ethanol that could potentially come from Brazil or Central America, he said. If the blend wall were increased from E10, or 12.5 billion gallons, to E15, or 19 million gallons, it could all be met with corn and sugar cane ethanol. "If we stay at E10, you can forget cellulosic ethanol," he said. "Even if we go to E15 there's no room at the inn for cellulosic ethanol."

VEETC, another big topic at the ACE conference, is certainly a topic of debate, Jennings told the crowd. The industry can debate about how many jobs would be lost and how many plants would close if it is allowed to expire at the end of the year. "The fact of the matter is that both those things would happen," he said, adding that the price at the gas pumps would go up for the consumer.

Keynote speaker Anne Korin, co-author of "Turning Oil into Salt" is a slight woman with passionate ideas about fuel choice and the danger of relying on what she called an oil cartel. "We are at the mercy of countries that hate us," she said. She made a strong case for supporting an open fuel standard. "We need to be able to choose," she said, "just like they do in Brazil." If passed, the law would require mandated amounts of flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) warranted to operate on gasoline, ethanol, methanol or biodiesel. Vehicles can run on ethanol or methanol with only a slight tweak, she said. Korin rallied hard for the ethanol industry to band together with other alternative fuels, not just for ethanol FFVs, adding that in 20 years or so, FFVs could also be hybrid vehicles, providing further consumer choice. "What we can tackle, and tackle very effectively is the gas part of the equation," she said.

Laws mandating FFVs have not gone anywhere, Korin asserted, because legislators coming from states outside the Corn Belt have no reason to support ethanol FFVs. If, however, methanol were added to the mix, FFVs would suddenly become much more attractive to legislators from coal and natural gas states, since both are produced right here in the U.S. While most methanol is made from natural gas, China makes a large amount of it from coal. If the producers and supporters of corn, natural gas and coal were to join together to ask lawmakers to mandate FFVs, that would be a nearly unbeatable coalition, she said. "It's very, very hard to argue against that political clout," she said.

Marc Rauch, executive vice president and co-publisher of The Auto Channel, a Web-based automotive information site, spoke about ethanol as a "single bullet solution." Some say there is no one solution for replacing petroleum, no one alternative fuel that is better than the others. "We disagree," he said. "We think that there is one solution that can be used immediatel--ethanol." Big Oil uses a strategy of divide and conquer to keep ethanol from succeeding. Big Oil buys politicians, buys votes and buys media spokespeople, he said, using misconceptions and outright lies. Some of the lies he listed are that ethanol requires high subsidies to succeed, damages engines, provides low power and is less energy dense and that FFVs are insignificant. "The lies are so pervasive, so well spread that many people in the alternative energy space and the ethanol camp believe some or all of them," he added.