Required Reading (You’re Already Taking the Test)

By Ron Lamberty | May 15, 2013

Much of the discussion about fuels that will be used by the automobiles of the future to reach the federal targets for higher mileage and lower greenhouse gas emissions has centered on higher octane fuel and higher compression engines. That’s great news for ethanol, since those happen to both be areas where ethanol holds a distinct advantage over gasoline.  Ironically, it’s also an area where automakers and the oil industry have a great deal of information and history, apparently.

An article by Jamie Lincoln Kitman in The Nation magazine tells about General Motors’ experience with higher blends of ethanol, and mentions the work of a GM engineer named Thomas Midgley, who applied for a patent on an alcohol-gasoline blend as an anti-knock fuel.  According to article, Midgley drove a car with a high compression engine to a Society of Automotive Engineers meeting in Indianapolis, using a gasoline-ethanol blended fuel containing 30 percent alcohol. Midgeley told the group that “Because of the possible high compression, the available horsepower is much greater with alcohol than with gasoline."

Why haven’t we heard this before?

The Nation article also talks about two brands of gas sold in England, Cleveland Discoll and Kool Motor—(which contained) 30 percent and 16 percent alcohol, respectively.” Those fuels were the products of two U.S. oil companies, and the article points out that the companies advertised the E30 and E16 as “the most perfect motor fuel the world has ever known, providing  extra power, extra economy, and extra efficiency.” Meanwhile, back in the United States, the same big oil companies were savaging alcohol fuels in the halls of Congress, saying it would destroy engines.

Now that sounds more familiar.

Here’s the really interesting part—the article I’m referencing actually ran 13 years ago in the March 20, 2000, issue of The Nation, and was entitled “The Secret History of Lead.” The incidents above all took place in the 1920s. And while it is fascinating to learn that the world’s largest automaker determined E30 was a fantastic fuel in the 1920s, and that the forerunners to ExxonMobil and Citgo sold E30 and E15 in England almost a hundred years ago, what may be more instructive and relevant to our current situation is the rest of the article, which documents the dishonesty and callousness that GM, Standard Oil of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil) and DuPont displayed as they fought to keep alcohol out of the U.S. fuel supply.

They fought to keep it out, to keep tetraethyl lead in. Lead isn’t something that exists in oil before they take it out to make unleaded gas. It was added to reduce knock.  And these three companies owned “ethyl” and stood to make a fortune by adding it to gasoline.

The refiners knew about the health hazards of leaded gasoline and so did the U.S. public health officials—but oil companies just said the claims weren’t true, and bought-and-paid-for regulators and elected officials believed those claims. Ethanol was safer and more effective than lead, but oil companies fought court battles, encouraged laws to keep any other additives out of the market, and when all of that failed, they simply mounted a smear campaign against other fuel alternatives and additives, complete with phony studies paid for and controlled by the original lead partners.

It took more than 60 years to get lead out of the fuel supply, even as thousands of people literally died every year as a result of contact with lead. Maybe we should be more encouraged by ethanol’s  progress?  “The Secret History of Lead” should be required reading for all ethanol supporters. It is a sobering view of the lengths some industries have gone to, to protect enormous profits in the past.  And those who forget the past (or don’t even know about it) are condemned to repeat it.

Author: Ron Lamberty
Senior Vice President,
American Coalition for Ethanol