08/01/2008 Ethanol Needs to Grow Some Grass Roots

Until recently, the ethanol industry avoided mainstream media like the plague. It always seemed like nothing good would come from talking to them. But our allergy to reporters has given ethanol’s detractors free rein to disparage America ’s best chance to become energy-independent, and our best chance to meet our climate change responsibilities as world citizens.

 

The primary damage done by three decades of self-imposed isolation has been our failure to build a wide base of support with the public. We should look to the organic food industry, which is a similar movement with similar enemies, to learn how they have built a powerful public base to defend them when necessary.

 

The “Organic Standards” (similar to the “Renewable Fuels Standards”) determine what’s organic and what’s not. Oil-based fertilizer and pesticide companies and the cattle, poultry, and other major food industries have repeatedly tried to dilute the standards so that their products can be considered organic and get access to this lucrative market.

 

When a challenge comes to dilute the standards, the organic movement can bury the U.S. Department of Agriculture in hundreds of thousands of letters and comments in mere days, while similarly inundating elected officials with “You don’t dare…” letters. As a result, challenges are less common and are nearly always repulsed.

 

Compare that to the 11th hour of the Farm Bill this year, when the Bush Administration barely had to whisper the falsehood that it was a choice between school lunches and maintaining the VEETC at 51 cents. Legislators for our side immediately caved in, knowing there was no way to quickly muster the support needed to fend off this absurd attack. We lost a nickel a gallon just like that. Over time, this loss will cost the ethanol industry billions of dollars, all because we have not built a grass-roots base of popular support. Politicians fear a well-orchestrated backlash from their constituents far more than they fear the manipulations of administration spin doctors. The school-lunch lie should have been quashed the day it was floated, but instead it cost us dearly.

 

Of course, it’s discouraging to go up against what I estimate has been more than a billion dollars of American Petroleum Institute anti-alcohol propaganda in the past year. We can’t stop the API from hiring hundreds of freelance writers, sending out 10,000 press releases an hour, funding boiler rooms full of bloggers, and sending anti-alcohol talking points to talk radio hosts. We can’t stop the David Pimentels, the Tad Patzeks, and the David Fridleys from spewing propaganda. But we are far from helpless.

 

            First of all, we need to take the battle to the propagandists--and stop being afraid of the press. It’s time to take the gloves off. For instance, I have repeatedly challenged anti-alcohol propagandists Pimentel and Fridley to public debates, and they have repeatedly declined. Nothing looks worse than refusing to debate the other side--and publicizing that refusal is very effective on the Web. (Fridley was apparently so afraid of my challenge that organizers at a recent California event banned me from the building, which made the local news.) The International Institute for Ecological Agriculture (IIEA) plans to film well-documented empty-chair debates between the missing refuseniks and myself, and put these out to YouTube and other media. Reporters will permanently have these resources to refer to when considering whom to quote.

 

We need to take on the propagandists in the live media, too. It’s a long hard battle, but I do five to ten radio shows and press interviews each week, myth-busting the propaganda. Some of these shows can be quite powerful. I recently spoke on Coast to Coast, a late-night talk show with six million listeners. Following the show, IIEA’s alcoholcanbeagas.com website got over two million hits and crashed the server; the next day, the phone company substation went down because of all the calls from people who wanted to do something about MegaOilron’s lies. My book, Alcohol Can Be A Gas! Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century, reached #19 on Amazon!

 

When I went on Lou Dobbs’ radio show a week later, lots of the Coast listeners called in and took the (fill-in) host to task for promulgating API propaganda after I was already off the air. By the end of the show, he was backpedaling, admitting ethanol might not be a bad idea after all, and committing to the listeners that he would bring me back.

 

A week or so later, the National Public Radio show Science Friday--after verifying the facts about food vs. fuel in my book--had me on, and I demolished the food vs. fuel myth, changing millions of listeners into ethanol supporters.

 

             If one out of ten of those listeners takes my advice to start splash-blending lower-cost alcohol at the pump in order to buy less gasoline, then this month’s radio shows alone will eventually increase E-85 sales by 500 million to a billion gallons a year. And wait until they start telling their friends about the money they are saving and the money they are not giving to oil companies! Not bad for a month’s work.        

 

Although it is effective to do these shows, the effect is multiplied many times as people connect others to the recorded shows via blogs, comment pages, and forums. This is where everyone can help.

 

The Alcohol Can Be a Gas website publishes links to recent articles or reports about alcohol fuel (thousands of people check the site to see if a media story should be believed). The members of Alcoholics Unanimous--IIEA’s army of volunteers dedicated to fighting Big Oil propaganda--go to the relevant comment pages, refute the propaganda, and drop in links to alcoholcanbeagas.com or to one of my radio or TV talks.

 

IIEA is building a grass-roots battalion of people who realize they have been lied to by Big Oil about alcohol fuel, and who are passionate about setting the record straight. Editors at newspapers, feeling the blistering heat of hundreds of comments refuting API prevarications, are thinking twice before risking being flamed again. With a legion of activist writers standing by, the next time Governor Oil Patch Perry or one of his ilk tries a stunt like demolishing the Renewable Fuels Standards, the Environmental Protection Agency will get a hundred thousand, or hundreds of thousands, of letters, instead of a paltry 15,000.

 

It is far past time for the ethanol industry to shed its fear of the media. We must reach out to build a solid base of public opinion, to help America wean itself of foreign oil. We will win the media war eventually if we enlist the help of average, everyday Americans who are tired of being victimized by MegaOilron. This is still a democracy, and the will of the people is still the most potent force to shape our country’s energy future, and for that matter its energy present.

 

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