API and ethanol — A musical match made from memory

Every time I get depressed about the world — and there is plenty to get depressed about — API (American Petroleum Institute) issues a silly press release that, in its confusing presentation and content, brings back a romantic song from my past. Because of API, over the last few years I have been reunited with Berlin, Gershwin and Bernstein, etc.

API has done it again. Its press release accusing the EPA and the administration of playing politics with RFS guidelines concerning ethanol, a release published even before the EPA has released its amended proposals, is nothing short of clairvoyant. I knew API had strange powers and was funded by the oil industry that, itself, has often been accused of confusing magic with facts.

API’s most recent press release brought joy to my heart. Without recognizing that I was doing so, while trying to sleep, I started to remember, paraphrase and sing a memorable tune from a top-ten best song list, published in the early sixties, “What kind of fool am I” (Leslie Bricusse et al.) to hope for wisdom from API. It has often run counter to facts and analysis concerning the benefits and costs of alcohol fuels and instead reflected the organization’s support from its patron oil company, Medicis.

API now contends that EPA is about to increase the renewable fuel targets for ethanol. Wow, a revolution! Call out the National Guard! To API, EPA’s action, if it occurs, would defy market place experience. E15 and E85 is not selling well. Oh, E15 and assumedly E85 is harmful to car engines. EPA’s assumed new rules would result in wasted resources and skew the market away from their favorite American-made product, gasoline (over 30 percent of which is not made in the U.S., but is imported). Not only would America be ruined but Adam Smith would turn over in his grave. Previous API releases indicate, in rather shrill tones, that ethanol is harmful to marriages, causes cigarette smoking and sexual dysfunction (just kidding).

It’s hard to respond to API’s release (or releases). Yes, the market for E15 and E85 has been relatively slow to develop, but API’s funders — oil companies — have been a, if not the, key factor causing the gap between demand and expectations. Not only has the industry tried to kill the chicken, it has also tried to kill the egg. Let me count the ways (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning):

1. Oil company franchise agreements rarely allow the franchise to locate an E85 pump in their stations. If they do, many times, it must be situated apart from the other pumps in the side of the station. At the present time, there are only 3,354 E85 stations in the nation. So much for the supply side.

2. Oil companies have not been fans of open fuel legislation. They have used their lobbyists and their own political power to help kill it every time it comes up in the Congress. So much for their collective belief in consumer choice.

3. Until recently, the carmakers in Detroit — historically, the allies of the oil industry — have been slow to respond to consumer and policymaker interest in flex-fuel cars — cars that can use more than gasoline and the conversion of existing cars to FFV status. While Detroit is now producing more flex-fuel vehicles every year, the oil industry still remains a backbencher and a naysayer with respect to producing or supporting alternative fuels and conversion options, new or old. So much for competition.

4. API’s research concerning the impact of ethanol on vehicle engines, funded, again, mostly by the oil industry, has not qualified it for applause and extended readership regarding methodology or content. Its relatively recent analysis of E15 was panned, justifiably, by the EPA and other researchers because of insufficient sample numbers and lack of relevant sample characteristics. But it apparently did what it was supposed to do: put fear in the minds of drivers concerning ethanol use. So much for independent and thorough research.

5. API seems to suggest that the RINS subsidy built in to the RFS is anti-market and anti-God and country. Maybe we should look at all subsidies granted fuels by the U.S. government and complete something like zero-based budgeting process to see which ones fit the public interest and which ones primarily line the pockets of the receivers. Government help, whether direct or indirect, whether visible or imputed, should be premised on articulated and transparent public objectives and should not substitute for private sector resources which would be available without subsidy. In this context, the range of oil subsidies, now on the books, clearly needs review and justification. They far outweigh the dollars that assist newer ethanol companies. Given resource constraints, perhaps we should put oil and ethanol support on a transparent evaluation table, and, after a fair debate, allow the public to decide. Et tu, oil companies and API!

API is an easy target. They shouldn’t be. With uncertainty concerning demand and price of oil and its derivative gasoline, I would think its bosses from the oil industry would put them to work reviewing the nation’s future menu of fuels and possible partnerships with alternative fuel companies and advocates. Apart from possible pro-forma benefits, many Americans who view the oil industry and its representatives through negative filters might begin to change their mind and see the industry as increasingly pro-choice, better on the environment, pro-consumer and pro-security. Hope springs eternal. The oil industry, up to now, has been living in a fool’s paradise for a long time — cheap oil, high demand and income growth. It’s the American way. But, given a changing economy, tight oil and relatively slow and uneven U.S. and global growth, continued reliance on an old oil industry monopolistic model will cause nightmares for wise men and women. API, what’s my next song? How about “I Can Dream Can’t I” or “High Hopes!”?

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