Ethanol versus Gasoline: The Contestation and Closure of a Socio-technical System in the USA

 By Faruk Arslan

For over a century, one of the greatest debates concerning the future of energy usage surrounds the differences between ethanol vs. gasoline use in the USA, and how they have impacted the world at large. In this case study, there are controversies that have come to view today after the technological revolution in the techno-science system, although ethanol is still an alternative over fuel. However, the assumption that ethanol isn’t economical, efficient or feasible continues and suggests and portrays, within the cultural and political context, that issues and causes have generally worked against the use of alcohol and in favour of gasoline since the 1940s in the USA. Michael S. Carolan (2009) focuses on the success stories of ethanol in the later decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, avoiding the reductionist tendencies of many Whiggish historian accounts of fuel and other scientists’ previous descriptive accounts of alcohol fuel’s past. As a controversy study, his thesis is that “no one factor can be linked to alcohol fuel’s ultimate demise as a legitimate alternative to gasoline” (Carolan, 2009:422). Carolan explores to redress a fundamental gap within STS literature on the subject of the automobile socio-technical system, reporting why and how fuelled automobiles have been locked in as a consumer choice.  In fact, the world’s energy system has faced a period of unprecedented change since World War II, as a global struggle is intensifying over who controls the energy sector.  Carolan seeks to examine nature mostly with explanatory stories and causal explanations, detailing various factors, including wars, economic depressions, and low estimates of oil, and describing strong networks such as automobile, petroleum and agricultural industry sectors.  Government and the Temperance and Farm Chemurgic movements’ positions had shaped the development of the ethanol industry over fuel usage preferences within the US during the first five decades of the twentieth century and reshaped them later on. Carolan’s article uses the Strong Programme’s symmetrical principle, but I refer to it as the Anglo-ANT, and it preserves the emphasis upon the network of associations/allies, without giving up its explanation and allowing nature and the social world to be divided into explanans ( See Appendix I) . Ethanol still improves rural economies, air, soil and water qualities, as they are renewable, reliable, and sustainable domestic qualities. I will argue that the ethanol versus gasoline debate has not ended yet because a strong domestic ethanol industry has established new markets in North America as the key means of environmental and economic production and subsistence with producing an alternative for fuel, since the post 9/11 era.


Carolan provides the early historical account of the gasoline and ethanol debate that was a contested area until the gasoline engine was stabilized, and then had competed in the socio-technical system that required a carrier of energy during the later decades of the 19th century and the earlier decades of the 20th century in the USA. A major player in the debate, “by 1879, Standard Oil Trust controlled 90% of all the oil refined in the USA,” focused to replace coal to fuel oil, and not alcohol, although “Rockfellers was against the tax repeal on alcohol fuel to increase costs when the President of America, the Temperance Party, the Automobile Club of America, many auto manufactures, media and the wide public supported the bill” (Carolan, 2009: 424-425). Many developing countries had created an emergency fuel system and imposed tax incentives or mandatory ethanol blending programs as temporary dimensions in place during war periods for supporting farmers, and reducing payments for foreign oil until the 1940s; however, nearly all countries abandoned their ethanol programs when cheap oil imports from the Middle East advanced. In this period, the proponents of alcohol and gasoline battled for scientific credibility. There were no clear winning and losing sides because the alcohol fuel tax was embedded to political values and company interests, and the scientific community praised alcohol fuel blends, since gasoline had no superiority over alcohol in socio-technology. The Farm Chemurgic Movement, the Great Depression and wars led to reduced grain prices in the 1920s which further declined in the 1940s. In fact, oil and automobile companies eventually won the case in the end because of the problem of dependency on a non-renewable resource and the shift of the idea of using a finite resource when new oil fields were discovered, oil prices decreased, and the engine knock problem was solved to offer a perfect runner engine for fuel (Carolan, 2009 :431-436). Enemies and allies switched their sides after the 1940s.


Carolan is impartial and avoids making the claim that the transition from coal to fuel made ethyl alcohol inefficient and uneconomical as a fuel alternative rather than a legitimate alternative, because the automobile engine still had to use ethanol energy until the 1950s, whereas Carolan claims that a historical background is not entirely accurately provided by Whig historians (Carolan, 2009: 422). Carolan found “little scientific controversy dating before the emergence of leaded gasoline over which fuel offered a smoother running engine, greater power and gains in engine efficiency” (Carolan, 2009: 436). Carolan discusses the competing socio-technical systems that had remained in play during the earlier decades of the 20th century and later on provides descriptive details on how gasoline and ethyl alcohol fuel were changed to affect a broader system (Carolan, 2009: 422). Carolan avoids to debate on the political economy of this controversy within limited space, making no claims about ‘global closer’ around petroleum to offer an exhaustive analysis of the controversy. Carolan explores the aspects of alcohol fuel’s past, redressing the gap within STS literature on the subject of automobile socio-technical systems, where “the story of ethyl alcohol remains conspicuously absent” (Carolan, 2009: 443). Therefore, the author’s goal was to understand why previous sociological accounts of the early automobile socio-technical system forgot to mention alcohol usage, whereas alcohol versus gasoline systems were competing on a far more similar scale than those underlying them such as steam, fuel, oil, and wood cars. Carolan aims to describe the emerging driver behaviours, clean burning, steady power, engine efficiency and engine noise factors in the marketplace that are explained by the author as related to how consumer choices shifted over alcohol to fuel based on oil companies’ and governments’ interests (Carolan, 2009: 442-443). Carolan has no intention to find a clear indication as to which was considered “the clearly superior fuel: gasoline, alcohol, or a blend of both” (Carolan, 2009:427).  This shows Carolan’s impartiality and unbiased approach.


I think Carolan captures the idea that ethanol has recently become the king of the challengers of petroleum as an ideal renewable and reliable resource again, as it is already found blended with gasoline at pumps across the USA where production had consisted of 115 plants operating in 19 states with 79 additional plants under construction in 2007 and continuing to ramp up (Clean Fuels Development Coalition, 2007). Carolan’s work used to be provided with 30% of descriptions and 70% of explanations, although was later on changed to re-describe controversies and explanandum by causal factors when Carolan mistrusted issues from past experiences that had influenced his explanation of the phenomenon to be explained, such as the effects of government and private corporations’ influences. Carolan sets claims that make clear the explanandum and the details of the provided explanations. Carolan is able to get away from controversy by explaining nature and reporting the interest groups in the social world, providing a network which describes the actors and agencies involved during the controversy, and still putting aside actors, respecting the questions of both sides’ controversies and making distinctions between actors and analysis questions impartially. There is an incomplete truth, however, and Carolan refers to facts only and makes no claim as a contribution. Carolan utilizes Collin’s and Bloor’s symmetrical approach, in which the same types of causes are invoked to explain truth and error as differing outcomes. This is because Carolan not only tells the story as a social relativist, but also analyzes confidently in many valid structural interpretations on what shaped social factors, whereas Carolan is successful to use the ANT analysis in a competing network.  Theoretical resources and interest groups are also examined in this debate scientifically and have been re-constructed by nature and social agencies alike within new arguments of the STS as both constructive and an interpretive.

As a matter of fact, governments used to advocate for alcohol fuel that can see the potential to help the poverty balance between urban cities and farming areas in the controversy period. The Temperance Movement was influential in the American Government, and it heavily supported the Chemurgic Movement to allow cultural and traditional conservatism to reduce poverty during the Great Depression and the two world wars’ years; but after the 1940s, the movement lost its credibility when seeded commodities for the alcohol blend, such as Jerusalem artichokes and sweet potatoes, explained symmetrically that they would “disobey science” and use “non-scientific trickeries” because “powerful interests were threatened” (Carolan, 2009: 436-437). Fear tactics will become unnecessary when oil reserves soon run out and the dependency of foreign oil causes frustration. Already, the old-fashioned paradigm has started to lose reliability since the plastic revolution, as synthetic chemistry emerged during and after World War II and caused new, huge oil fields to be found in the U.S. and allowed hegemonic power to control countries in the Middle East and increase in oil estimates while reconstructing a new paradigm (Carolan, 2009: 439). Carolan claims that if the Standard Oil Trust in the alcohol industry has not changed its position and favoured to expand the capital in oil fields, the ethanol industry may establish a more sustainable and stabilized sector today, whereas after “the Interstate Oil cartel started to coordinate state production policies and helped remove market fluctuations that created spaces of opportunity for alcohol” (Carolan, 2009:440, 442).

Ideas have changed and shifted in the social world. Insurance companies, city ordinances and company laws have placed restrictions on the use of gasoline in this time in certain areas, and “many scientists and automobile engineers have supported to use alcohol blend at the pump,” however, oil has become cheaper and the engine design stabilized after the 1930s to “determine the efficiency and effectiveness of engines powered by alcohol and gasoline, and the alcohol/gasoline blend”(Carolan, 2009, Giebelhaus, 1979). The U.S. Geological service and the U.S. Navy conducted tests in the early 1900s favouring alcohol, but it was contested when the American Automobile Association (AAA) operated a similar test and got the result that “ the car powered with alcohol had poorer mileage and less power whose study brought socio-technological reality to controversy” until one of the major problems of knocking had been resolved and “gasoline was being universally recognized as superior to alcohol when built with high compression ratios” (Carolan, 2009: 429). The separation of alcohol and gasoline in the presence of water was problematic for both in the early years when alcohol fuel had to be free of water and still be sold at reasonable costs, and at the same time more available and profitable to use than the fuel used today, whereas “the oil industry has justified the abandonment of the alcohol blend” that was attributed to alcohol’s instability in the presence of water, where “alcohol remained problematic when cleaning fuel storage tanks” (Giebelhaus, 1980b; Carolan, 2009: 429). The automobile industry had fixed the engine design around gasoline, stabilizing and standardizing the gasoline engine to become less risky, noisy and give maximum power privileges over the alcohol fuel engine, while interest groups’ power to shape the public’s mind and force influence on the government and media helped favour the gasoline engine (Carolan, 2009: 426-428).

In the author’s footnote, actors, allies, enemies and networks are pointed out in detail and mentioned separately, and they are described as the “automobile, clubs, representatives from oil producing states and elements of federal government, many cities’ business owners, the Standard Oil, General Motors, and fuel dealers, which had been involved as beneficiaries during the late 1920s and late 1930s” (Giebelhaus, 1980a; Wright, 1993). As matter of fact, fuel dealers lacked the necessary issued ethanol licence, and were “forced to sell gasoline only rather than alcohol blends,” from the time when Ethyl Gasoline Corporation had been bought by General Motor and Standard Oil of New Jersey until the 1940s (Kovarik, 1998). Carolan notes external factors and a number of reasons for this, for instance, the institutional connections, lobbying power, and media saturations network and the petroleum industry’s oil estimates that took on “greater weight by policy makers and the public which greatly undermined the effectiveness of the national energy dependence frame utilized by alcohol proponents” (Carolan, 2009: 433).  Enemies and allies were changed, and General Motor and Standard Oil of New Jersey, the Ford automotive industry and petroleum industry had switched their sides and become enemies of ethanol, and the government changed its position from farmers’ interest to the auto and petroleum industries’ interests, as Carolan mentioned in his footnote and bibliography.

Carolan suggests some generalizable points that are explicit about politics, history, culture and the nature of science and technology, such as “former alcohol’s poor fit within the latter’s socio-technical world” when elitist behaviour and the organizational structure had shifted and favoured “the mass production of the gasoline-driven automobile that began to be the car of the masses” (Carolan, 2009: 443). Power, clean burning, engine efficiency, engine noise, and emerging driver behaviour were different in previous sociological accounts of the early automobile socio-technical system and changed over time where alcohol fuel was forgotten.  Carolan uses externally oriented, social and corporate reflexivity and flexibilities, which are given choices and show the distribution of power and analyze redistributions. For example, the same factors were not equally similar in Europe, such as the absence of industrial alcohol ‘sin tax’ that existed in the USA for 50 years, whereas, some events were common to countries on either side of the Pacific including World Wars I and II, falling grain prices after World War I, and later on, the Marshal Plan; however, “European countries around gasoline was a multi-variable event, yet those variables cannot be universalized across vases absent a multi-case analysis” (Carolan, 2009: 443). Carolan uses the macro level of externally oriented reflexivity as “oil price stabilization was an effect of an interstate oil cartel” since the 1930s, and Standard Oil was lobbied to defeat pre-alcohol legislation and force fuel dealers in marketplace, identifying both side interests as having undergone pressure on the decline of the Farm Chemurgic movement (Carolan, 2009: 443-444). Carolan gives a re-description of the social world when he suggests that oil and automobile companies are organizational actors and profit from maximization, for instance, the increase of private organizational interests within the US, as “their interests are enacted through relation with a network of other organizations,” and the changing interpretation of oil estimates and companies that influenced fuel usage (Bowden, 1985: 209). Figures 1 and 2 show how the relationship between registered automobiles and the production of crude oil has shaped oil and auto sectors’ minds to favour ethanol over fuel between 1909 and1920 ( Boyd, 1921). Carolan is impartial and shows that there are no clear indications of winning and losing, true or false, and of who is the underdog or the overdog, because science is very messy and complicated, quite controversial itself.  In addition, Carolan uses external reflexivity when providing data of recent development on ethanol in the USA, and there is still enough evidence that supports that ethanol is a crucial alternative both economically and environmentally because the ethanol industry has been on the rise, and governments have favoured the green revolution since 9/11. Carolan externally focuses on the institutional, political and cultural levels both to neglect the mere fundamentals and put spotlight on the ambiguity and complexity of the external world to account for the contingency of events. Carolan points out the similar stories that analysts tell of the form of reflexivity as an outgrowth of original Strong Programme sentiments. Automakers, policy makers, petroleum companies, farmers, ethanol producers, governments and consumers of gasoline and ethanol are the direct audience. However, broader points are made to the scientific audience and indirectly it is given to the general population that scientific knowledge has always limits and boundaries on what to do politically and ethically, although there is no boundary on what science tells and what to do in the real world. This is why Carolan uses explicitly the Anglo-ANT to explain and advocate why fuel usage has expanded over ethanol usage, although ethyl alcohol remains absent while providing the cause of claims, network and cause of claim of the STS where the social worlds are competing each other and where one network is more powerful than others, which the author did nice explanatory and descriptive work elucidating. Carolan is a social realist, not a naive scientist, as he showed the case as it was and explained both sides’ stories. Although Carolan had critically engaged in the case and used the social world theory, he avoided to make a strong claim about the global closure around petroleum because of different variables in effect in Europe.

In conclusion, I am not happy with the author’s position in the dispute, since Carolan is too impartial, as he provides a sufficient explanatory approach to the natural cause of claims and a thorough description to nature and society, despite not taking a side for ethanol or gasoline. Carolan could have used extra external reflexivity on the ruthlessness of the petroleum industry over ethanol as another symmetrical explanation in this case and extend his network with other powerful actors, such as environmentalists, and additionally use recent ethanol reports to firmly claim that nature and technology at stake. Carolan instead re-describes the concepts of the issue, provides re-categorization, and re-satirizes when necessary, doing some credible, workable and flexible and associated with broader claims that ethanol cannot be eliminated. Carolan is able to separate himself from the case, and provide a separation of the actors and the analysis. However, I disagree with Carolan, since he could have found more indications to have shown the lack of fuel superiority scientifically; and thus make the suggestion of the combined usage of a blend of both. Watching the gas prices fluctuate from holiday to holiday and season to season, it’s easy to see that gasoline is a big business in our social world. Nations have fought wars over the precious supply of oil that is difficult to find, drill, and refine. Still, there are concerns from environmentalists of the effects of reckless farming methods that may take advantage of land and labour in Third World nations.  Ethanol vs. gasoline is an important debate concerning which it is important for consumers to know the way energy use is changing.  Latour claims that science is a war game of Roma and the biggest network to win. Today, the social world and techno-science is watchful for cars that will run on mixed fuels or ethanol only. Ethanol usage will be increased in the future and become mandatory if petroleum reserves will decline and oil prices increase. This case shows hybrids, co-productions, translations and re-descriptions in ANT translating one thing to another.  There should be environmental concerns because there are many differences between ethanol and gasoline and controversies concerning their debate. There is no question that the combustion of fossil fuels has made way to many environmental concerns. In fact, it has been proposed that transportation fuels are America’s largest polluters. The burning of petroleum-based fuels produces the majority of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, reactive organic gases, and nitrogen oxides that American cities suffer from. For this reason, many fuel oxygenates have been created to counteract these emissions. When comparing ethanol with gasoline, it is important to understand that ethanol can either be used as an additive to gasoline or on its own. The use of ethanol either mixed within gasoline or on its own can have a powerful impact on the amount of pollutants produced. The use of ethanol can reduce the carbon monoxide emitted from the tailpipe of automobiles by 30 percent (Clean Fuels Development Coalition, 2007). Ethanol is significantly less harmful as it is a non-toxic, renewable fuel, whose use has the potential to increase human health, and in addition is both biodegradable and water soluble.  However, I can say that nobody can diminish alcohol fuel’s expansion, which has still been seen as a legitimate alternative to gasoline in North America and Europe since the 9/11 event.


Bowden, Garry (1985) ‘The Social Construction of Validity in Estimates of US Crude Oil Reserves’, Social Studies of Science, Sage Publication 15: 207-240.

Boyd, T.A. (1921)’Motor Fuel from Vegetation’, Journal of Industrial and Engireng Chemistry 13(9):836

Carolan, Michael S. (2009).  ‘Ethanol versus Gasoline: The Contestation and Closure of a Socio-technical System in the USA’. Social Studies of Science 39/3, SSS and Sage Publications, pp 421-448.

Clean Fuels Development Coalition (2007) The Ethanol fact Book (Washington, DC: Clean Fuels Development Coalition, available at www.

Clean Fuels Development Coalition (2007) Optimal Ethanol Blend-Level Investigation, the Final Report available at

Giebelhaus, August (1979). ‘ Resistance to Long-term Energy Transition: the Case of Power Alcohol in the 1930s’, in Lewis Perelman, August Giebelhaus &Michael Yokell (eds), Energy Transition: Long-term perspective, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 35-63.

Giebelhaus, August (1980a)’Farming for Fuel: The Alcohol Motor Fuel Movement of the 1930s, Agricultural History 54(1):173-84.

Giebelhaus, August (1980b) Business and Government in the Oil Industry: A Case Study of Sun Oil, 1876-1945, Greenwich, CN: JAI Press

Koverik, Bill (1998) ‘Henry Ford, Charles F. Kettering and the Fuel of the Future’, Automotive History Reviews 32: 7-27

Wright, David (1993) Alcohol Wreck a Marriage: The Farm Chemurgic Movement and USDA in the Alcohol Fuels Campaign in the Spring of 1933’, Agricultural History 67(1):36-66.









Appendix I –  Carolan’s Symmetrical Diagram of the Anglo-ANT






Interest of social groups

Social causes aid in settlement of dispute

Analysis of different among more actors and agencies

Competing science &non-science- it is messy


Agency to Humans

Non-humans have equally powerful

Allies/enemies re-describe-switched

Non-humans settle dispute (Oil &Engine)


Social explains to nature

Social causes are doing more than nature