Why Is Jay Leno Misrepresenting Ethanol?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

As you read the Op-Ed below by Marc J. Rauch, Executive Vice President and Co-Publisher of the Auto Channel (originally published here), keep in mind two things: Ethanol can be made from garbage, and when it is, it reduces the bulk and harm of landfills, and ethanol can be made for a dollar a gallon using unfarmable land and undrinkable water. Now here's Marc Rauch:

There are two things that everyone knows about Jay Leno: He's a great comedian, and he's a seriously great automobile enthusiast. Generally, when you become great at something you learn a lot about that subject; even if you don't want to learn about the subject, and you just want to be good at engaging in the activity, it's virtually impossible to not become a great student of the history and mechanics of that subject.

I have no doubt that Jay is a master of comedy history, along with the mechanics of what is funny and why it's funny.

I've watched enough video of Jay and his vehicles to believe that he is equally a master when it comes to knowing about his vehicles and the history of how they were designed. I also know that Jay has been a proponent of alternative fuels and advanced technologies. In fact, we even have a few dozen stories and videos of Jay on The Auto Channel website that feature him discussing these things.

I'm also aware of at least two other media pieces done by, or with, Jay in which he enthusiastically discusses his E85-powered 2006 Corvette. (One piece was a Popular Mechanics text story published in 2008, the other was a video produced in Las Vegas at SEMA 2007.)

In both of the stories, Jay expresses a favorable opinion of the advantages of high-level ethanol gasoline blends versus gasoline without ethanol or even just E10 gasoline (10% ethanol/90% gasoline). Among other benefits, Jay cites ethanol's higher octane rating, cooler operating engine temperatures, lower harmful emissions, and ethanol's engine cleaning characteristics that leave behind no nasty gasoline residue and gunk that clog key engine components, such as pistons and valves.

Well, a few days ago, it was brought to my attention that Jay has authored a new story that appeared in the March 2 edition of AutoWeek magazine. The article, titled "Can't We Just Get Rid Of Ethanol?" basically proposes that the United States end the "Renewable Fuel Standard" (RFS) because of issues related to the use of ethanol fuels in older vehicles. At the close of the story Jay exhorts readers and automobile enthusiasts to write to their legislators to demand action against ethanol.

Clearly there is a difference between old cars and new cars, that is to say "classics" and "antiques," and late model vehicles - like those that make up the overwhelming majority of vehicles on the road today. Therefore, it is understandable for Jay to express two different opinions about ethanol as it pertains to old cars versus new cars.

(For those of you keeping score at home, the average age of all cars and trucks on the road in America is only about 10 years. Keep in mind that since the early 1990's all gasoline-powered passenger cars and trucks manufactured for America have used engine and fuel-system components that are resistant to alcohol's solvent properties.)

However, the problem to me is that Jay didn't say "write to your legislators to demand more freedom of fuel choice to give us old car owners easier access to ethanol-free gasoline," he's instead calling for less freedom of fuel choice. More importantly, as much as I hate to say it, Jay is using information to sway the argument that is untrue and misleading. And so, since I think that Jay should know, and does know better, that he is lying in the AutoWeek story.

For example, in the new AutoWeek story, Jay states that "ethanol will absorb water from ambient air...causing corrosion and inhibiting combustion."

Ethanol doesn't absorb water from the ambient air. This lie is one of the oldest and most malicious of the lies created by the oil industry to denigrate ethanol. The only thing new in how Jay used this lie is that he used the word "ambient." I've not seen that before. I've seen quotes that use the word "thin" to denote ordinary air that we normally breathe, but not "ambient." Regardless, this is not what occurs.

It seems many years ago that some clever oil industry person must have learned that ethanol (alcohol) is a hygroscopic substance, and that the general dictionary definition for a hygroscopic substance is that it can attract moisture from its environment. What the oil industry wag then did was to substitute the word "attract" with "absorb," and "air" for environment. Thus, attracting moisture from its environment magically became absorbing water out of thin air.

To keep with a Jay Leno comedian metaphor, let me offer a classic Abbott & Costello routine that presents a startlingly clear analogy at how silly Jay's hygroscopic statement is:

Costello tells Abbott that a loaf of bread is the mother of the airplane. Abbott tells Costello that he's crazy. Costello asks Abbott if he agrees that necessity if the mother of invention. Abbott replies yes. Costello then asks if bread is a necessity; Abbott says yes. Costello asks is the airplane is an invention; Abbott says yes. Therefore, exclaims Costello, if bread is a necessity and the airplane is an invention, then a loaf of bread is the mother of the airplane.

What I'm getting at is just because you can play semantic word games with the definition of "hygroscopic" that doesn't mean that the result of the game is relevant and correct.

To prove that alcohol will not absorb water right out of the thin or ambient air, I always offer this simple at-home experiment: Fill any open container halfway with alcohol and place it on your kitchen counter. Allow it to sit for one or more days. If alcohol absorbs water right out of the air, then when you check the level of liquid in the ensuing days you would find that it has risen. If you find that the level of the liquid in the container has risen (without any manipulation, change to the environment of your indoor kitchen, or interference to the natural process) and you can document it, I will pay you $1,000.

Incidentally, cotton is also a hygroscopic substance. So just as additional proof that being a hygroscopic substance doesn't mean that it absorbs water right out of the air, place a ball of cotton on the other side of your kitchen counter and see if it gets saturated with water from just sitting out in the open.

Moving on to one of Jay's other points, if you were to pour a gallon of water in your gasoline tank your vehicle will probably have great difficulty starting. But that's not how water gets in your gasoline tank, unless you're very, very drunk when you go to the filling station. You can get water in your fuel system because of condensation. So what do you do if you have some water in your fuel system? Do you stick a straw in and suck it out? No, you add a product like Dry Gas. Dry Gas is ethanol, meaning that you use ethanol to solve the problem of water in your gasoline tank. That's right, to solve the problem!

Ethanol doesn't actually absorb the water, it breaks the water molecules down so that ignition and combustion of the gasoline can take place. The water molecules are then expelled in the exhaust. In other words, ethanol aids combustion, not inhibits combustion as Jay stated.

Jay goes on to say, "It gets worse. Ethanol is a solvent that can loosen the sludge, varnish and dirt that accumulate in a fuel tank. That mixture can clog fuel lines and block carburetor jets." The sludge, varnish and dirt that Jay is referring to is caused by gasoline. So ironically, the cleaning characteristic that Jay is now criticizing is the same beneficial cleaning characteristic that he previously championed when discussing the benefits of ethanol.

Then Jay writes, "Blame the Renewable Fuel Standard (for these problems). However, that's not where the blame lies. The blame lies with gasoline; the liars in the gasoline industry; and the politicians who forced us to use gasoline, which resulted in gasoline becoming the dominant and default vehicle fuel. Ethanol cleans the gunk, gasoline causes it.

Even if ethanol is never introduced into a fuel system the time will come when the engine must be cleaned. The engine repair industry didn't spontaneously arise with the advent of E10 or E85 gasoline. Engine repair, maintenance and replacement is a natural result of the internal combustion process. If we can have a fuel that (as Jay previously wrote) burns 100 percent, leaving behind no nasty residue and leftover gunk that clogs key engine components, why shouldn't we have that fuel readily available? Shouldn't that fuel be our primary default engine fuel?

Jay talks about damage that ethanol has caused to the fiber diaphragms in the fuel system of one of his Duesenbergs. I think he's probably correct about this. But is this the reason why America should abandon the RFS and return to gasoline that contains poison?

If you watch the video that Jay did in Las Vegas in 2007 he says something very interesting; in response to the question of how he selects which vehicle he is going to drive to work on a given day, with great humility he acknowledges that there are greater problems in the world to worry about. That was a correct, very modest response. So in keeping with that recognition, I suggest that the fiber diaphragms in his or anyone else's Duesenbergs have no significance in our national decision on what is the correct engine fuel to use.

As a person who has owned classic cars (although I've never owned more than one at a time, and they weren't especially valuable), while I can appreciate his concern over his vehicles, I suggest he suck it up as a noblesse oblige sacrifice that he must make.

For some inexplicable reason Jay also throws in negative comments about ethanol producers and the "food vs. fuel" argument. This inclusion made me think that perhaps Jay didn't actually write this article - that it was actually written by some API stooge and Jay just signed off on it. Jay refers to some ethanol producers as "giant agri-businesses," and its mention is couched within a paragraph that is meant to demean the producers and the overall effort to make us energy independent. Admittedly, some ethanol producers are large corporations, but when you compare them to the giant oil companies they are virtually mom and pop businesses.

For example, in the same year that ExxonMobil reported their fiscal fourth quarter profit as $40 billion, Archer Daniels Midland reported their fiscal fourth quarter profit of $372 million. Although $372 million is nothing to sneeze at, it’s less than 1% of ExxonMobil’s profit. So if there's a picture being painted about huge greedy companies looking to take advantage of the American consumer, the illustration is of ExxonMobil not ADM. And we must remember that the ethanol we use in America is produced here in America by Americans. No American military man or woman has ever died defending domestic ethanol production and distribution.

As for "food vs. fuel," Jay might as well claim that the Earth is flat. About 10 years ago, The World Bank issued a statement in which they claimed that increased corn-based ethanol production was causing food prices to rise. Since that time, The World Bank has twice rescinded that earlier claim based on new and better studied information. The fuel-related culprit they acknowledge as causing food prices to rise is gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum oil products that are used in packaging.

I think that Jay was irresponsible for writing, or signing off on, this article. However, the bulk of the responsibility for letting this misinformation come to the light of day belongs to AutoWeek magazine. Regardless of what Jay Leno had to say, they should not have allowed it to be published, or at the least they should have published it with some considerable disclaimers. I guess that AutoWeek's decision was predicated upon the hope of increased advertising support from the oil industry, and that the reason they chose to embellish the headline title of Jay's story on the online version of the story with "Jay Leno hates ethanol" was to make sure that they were kissing enough ass. I also presume that Jay made the same decision to create the story based on the potential of getting oil company sponsorship for his new automotive content ventures. If I'm correct then there is little reason for this magazine article to have been written and published.


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