For almost a century, many people have blamed oil magnate John D. Rockefeller for the demise of ethanol as a viable fuel for internal-combustion engines.

He fought its use, the theory goes, to eliminate competition for the gasoline derived from his Standard Oil business—whose descendant companies still extract and sell fossil fuels today.

After a little bit of research and dot-connecting from Hemmings Motor News, however, it's safe to say the oil magnate was never responsible for killing ethanol as a fuel.

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But it's easy to see why Rockefeller is so easily blamed: he and his wife became proponents of the Temperance movement to cut U.S. alcohol consumption, which ultimately led to the period of Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.

Corn Ethanol Pump

Corn Ethanol Pump

In the early 1900s, many felt alcohol consumption was leading the U.S. astray. Like others, Rockefeller's reasons for supporting prohibition were mostly founded in his religion.

Many business leaders who supported temperance and prohibition were also convinced they'd have a more productive workforce at their disposal.

The real thing that had prevented ethanol from becoming a fuel source, Hemmings suggests, were alcohol taxes.

That was remedied by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 with the passage of the Free Alcohol bill.

The bulk of the experimental engines powered by ethanol would come after that bill's passage, and long after Rockefeller retired in 1885 from the oil business he had founded.

Even then, Henry Ford developed experimental ethanol engines largely to appease farmers, since ethanol could be distilled on location from their own grain.

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Finally, one big factor debunks the entire myth of Rockefeller using prohibition to stamp out ethanol as a fuel source

Sign for 'ethanol-free premium gas' at Stewart's, Port Ewen, NY, Mar 2015 [photo: William Benson]

Sign for 'ethanol-free premium gas' at Stewart's, Port Ewen, NY, Mar 2015 [photo: William Benson]

That would be the text of the 18th Amendment itself.

According to the specific text establishing the Prohibition Era, "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited."

The legislation itself speaks of "beverage purposes," and does not include any references to alcohols used as fuel.

Furthermore, the Volstead Act, which was passed to enforce the 18th amendment, says:

"An Act to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries."

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So, technically, the act even encouraged the use of ethanol as fuel.

Though we'll never know Rockefeller's true intentions, he was never likely intent on killing ethanol as a competitor to his oil empire.

Consider that just another alt-fuel myth debunked.


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