As Congress Debates Ethanol Mandate, Industries Go Toe to Toe on the Airwaves

National Journal

As Congress steps deeper into the thicket known as the renewable-fuel standard, the ethanol industry is stepping up its own efforts to convince the public that mixing grain alcohol with gasoline is "good for America."

This week the ethanol trade group Growth Energy launched a new ad campaign aimed at the oil industry's arguments that the ethanol mandate established in the 2005 energy law is raising food and fuel prices and damaging cars and trucks.

The ad, which began airing Monday on national cable networks, features a man smartly dressed in suit and tie asking his ventriloquist dummy to explain the fuel standard, adding, "And that's real bad, right?" The dummy answers, "Yeah, for big oil, because it means we use less oil and more renewable." A voiceover intones: "Why doesn't big oil want you to know the RFS is good for America?" as text flashes on the screen telling viewers to ask Congress to support the renewable-fuel standard.

"We launched this campaign to push back against oil and gas companies," Growth Energy spokesman Michael Frohlich told National Journal Daily. "We know we're not the ones with the biggest, deepest pockets compared with the oil industry, but we have the heart and we're willing to fight. And we're confident we have the facts on our side."

The ad is a response to a campaign launched in mid-August by the American Petroleum Institute, the chief lobbying arm of the oil and gas industry. API's ad, "Truth About the Renewable-Fuel Standard," is running in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio — the homes of some key members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who began taking a hard look at the standard in July.

The oil-industry ad features a man saying higher blends of ethanol in gasoline could damage car engines, while a woman comments, "It could even raise food prices because it diverts crops from food production to ethanol." It ends with the message: "Tell Congress to repeal the renewable-fuel standard before it's too late."

Patrick Kelly, a senior policy adviser at API, told NJ Daily that the industry's biggest concern is the move to ethanol blends of up to 15 percent in gasoline.

"This is a real problem, especially with E15, since most cars experience engine problems with that amount of ethanol," he said. "We often get accused of being anti-ethanol, but nothing could be further from the truth. We're just concerned about putting more ethanol into the fuel supply than cars can handle."

The competing ads signal the high priority both sides are giving to the debate over the RFS, a growing focus on Capitol Hill in recent months. In July, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., asked Reps. John Shimkus, R-Ill., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Lee Terry, R-Neb., and Steve Scalise, R-La., to look into ways to reform, but not repeal, the standard.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee also plans a hearing on the renewable-fuel standard this fall.

Amy Harder contributed contributed to this article