U.S. farming and oil lobbies have spent over a decade battling over a government program that requires that renewable fuels are blended with gasoline, but a recent survey showed motorists largely don't know or care what goes into their gas tanks.
In a June 28-July 5 Reuters/Ipsos poll of about 1,500 U.S. drivers, more than a half said they were unfamiliar with ethanol. About the same portion of respondents said they paid little or no attention to whether the gasoline they bought contained ethanol.
The results show that multi million dollar campaigns waged by corn farmers and the biofuel lobby to boost the use ethanol in fuels and by the oil industry defending the status quo, barely registered with consumers and gas retailers.
"I have no idea" what's in the gas," said Kerri Price, 53, who lives near Albuquerque and drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee. "I just drive up, look for the cheapest price and pump."
Nearly all U.S. gasoline contains about 10 percent ethanol, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Many consumers are unaware of that or of fuels with higher 15 and 85 percent ethanol content that the biofuel lobby promotes.
Both the survey results and interviews with motorists show cost and convenience trump everything, with 93 percent of those surveyed saying price influenced their decisions and 80 percent said location of a gas station was a priority.
The online poll of over 2,500 American adults included 1,526 people who said they commute to work in their personal vehicles.
Higher ethanol blends tend to be slightly cheaper than the standard 10-percent gasoline, but shale oil boom and the collapse in oil and gas prices in the past two years have limited that price advantage. The E15 fuel with up to 15 percent of ethanol costs about 5 cents per gallon, about 2 percent, less than the standard gasoline, according to estimates from the Renewable Fuels Association.
Surging shale production has also effectively made the United States energy self-sufficient, helping accomplish one of the goals of the 2005 legislation that introduced biofuel blending targets. Reducing greenhouse emissions was another reason the United States and more than 60 other countries have adopted renewable fuel targets, but the environment does not seem to play a primary role in consumers' decisions, the survey showed. (Click here to see graphic.)
Different shade of green
"People say they want to be green but the green they care about at the pump is in their wallet," said John Eichberger, Executive Director of the Fuels Institute.
On the other hand, Big Oil and auto manufacturers also seem to have struggled getting through with their message that higher ethanol blends could impair vehicle durability and performance.
According to the poll, about four out of 10 Americans who drive to work said they did not know if ethanol was good for a vehicle's general performance, while the rest appeared to be split about it. The same portion did not know if ethanol affected their mileage.
The reason the debate does not seem to resonate among consumers is that particularly the ethanol industry has focused its efforts on lobbying lawmakers in Washington, said Laura Sheehan, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies.
"It would take a full-out consumer education campaign. We're talking an exorbitantly expensive one," said Sheehan, who is also a public relations specialist in the energy sector.
"You'd have to make the campaign very personal. Ethanol is just not personal to the average consumer ..."
Big oil, biofuels companies, environmentalist and farm groups spent at least $15 million in 2015 alone on lobbying around biofuels and related issues, according to a Reuters analysis of congressional lobbyist records. That figure does not include spending on advertising.
Biofuel industry representatives say there is inherent difficulty in reaching consumers if a product is not widely available. While the 10 percent blend is now standard, fuel with up to 15 or 85 percent ethanol content is only available at a few hundred out the nation's 150,000 gas stations.
"The more the fuel is available, the more the industry will do to educate consumers and advance availability," said Robert White, the Renewable Fuels Association's Vice President of Industry Relations.
For Sheetz, one of the largest U.S. fuel retailers to offer the 15 percent and 85 percent ethanol blends, the strategy is just to keep increasing the supply. The company is about to finish rolling out pumps for such fuels at its 60 stores in North Carolina.
"Did people know they wanted an iPad before it was out there?" said Michael Lorenz, Sheetz's executive vice president of petroleum supply. "Sometimes consumers don't know what they want until you can show it to them."