Post-Oil, an Alcohol Economy?

As I figured, Bush’s remarks about U.S. oil “addiction” led the coverage of Tuesday’s State of the Union address. The unintended consequences of his new position on energy will, I think, have a far more lasting effect on the nation’s future energy course than the vague policies to which he alluded. That unintended consequence is: Thinkers from across the ideological spectrum will now get much more attention as they conceptualize a post-oil economy.

Whether it’s because the world is running out of oil, or because global climate change leaves us no choice, or because of political explosions in the Middle East, an “oil shock” is coming. This is going to be one generation’s urgent business, sooner or later, so it might as well be sooner.

For years, the energy issue was cast as a morality play: The good environmentalists who favor wind and solar power and drive hybrids, vs. the bad oil industry and their political servants like Dick Cheney. An idea’s quality was seldom judged on its own merits but on its perceived good or bad intentions, or on which side of the political fence it fell. A political correctness had settled over an issue that, in the end, ought to be decided by the results of scientific inquiry and innovative engineering, not the purity of one’s soul.

Political correctness is seldom helpful in solving any societal problem. It usually makes me suspicious. The point of political correctness too frequently is to insulate wobbly ideas from debate. It’s the political version of “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” or “don’t confuse me with the facts.”

With that preamble, here’s a link to an essay in The American Enterprise by engineer and author Robert Zubrin. I’ll quote two chunks. First, here is how Zubrin sees the problem:

Using portions of the hundreds of billions of petrodollars they are annually draining from our economy, Middle Easterners have established training centers for terrorists, paid bounties to the families of suicide bombers, and funded the purchase of weapons and explosives. Oil revenues underwrite new media outlets that propagandize hatefully against the United States and the West. They pay for more than 10,000 radical madrassahs set up around the world to indoctrinate young boys with the idea that the way to paradise is to murder Christians, Jews, and Hindus. It was men energized by oil-revenue resources who killed 3,000 American civilians on September 11, 2001, and who have continued to kill large numbers of Westerners in Iraq and elsewhere. We are thus subsidizing acts of war against ourselves.

And we have not yet reached the culmination of the process. Iran and other states are now using petroleum lucre to underwrite the development of nuclear weapons, and insulate themselves from the economic sanctions that could result. Once produced, these nuclear weapons could be used directly or made available to terrorists to attack U.S., European, or Israeli cities and military forces. This is one of the gravest threats to the next generation—and, again, we are paying for it ourselves with oil revenue.

Our responses to these provocations have been muted and hapless. Why? Because any forceful action on our part against nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia could result in the disruption of oil supplies that the world economy is completely dependent upon. We can’t stand up to our enemies because we rely upon them for the fuel that is our own lifeblood.

And the situation is even worse below the surface. In addition to financing terror directly and indirectly, oil exporters are using their wealth to corrupt our political system. Important Washington, D.C. law firms and lobbying organizations have been put on the payroll of Arab nations to blunt any attempts at retaliation for their promotion of terrorism. Arab investors have made enormous buys in media organizations that could allow them to influence U.S. public opinion.

All this, however, is mere prologue. China and India are rapidly industrializing, and within a decade or two the number of cars in the world will double or triple. If the world remains on the oil standard, the income streams of many noxious oil exporters will soar. We will be impoverished to the same degree they are enriched. The vast sums transferred will not only finance global jihad and dangerous weapons development in the Middle East, but also increase potential for manipulation of the U.S. and Western economies. At currently projected rates of consumption, by the year 2020 over 90 percent of the world’s remaining petroleum reserves will be in the Middle East, controlled by people whose religion obligates them to subjugate us.

In light of these realities, current U.S. energy policy is a scandal.

Zubrin fires invective in every direction. He attacks “environmental absolutists” as well as “the charlatans who are promoting hydrogen as a solution to our energy woes” for “doing the nation an immense disservice.” Wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear power, which get the most focus as energy alternatives are somewhat beside the point because

The key to energy independence, rather, is liquid fuel to power cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes. These vehicles are not mere conveniences; they are the sinews of our economy and the fundamental instruments of our military strength. Our civilization cannot be sustained without efficient liquid fuels, and there is no foreseeable prospect whatsoever of cost effective, large-scale generation of liquid fuels from wind, solar, hydroelectric, or nuclear sources.

To address the need for a new, more sustainable liquid fuel, Zubrin recommends “taking the world off the petroleum standard and putting it on an alcohol standard.”

This may sound like a huge and impossible task, but with gasoline prices well over $2 per gallon, the means to accomplish it are now at hand. Congress could make an enormous step toward American energy independence within a decade or so if it would simply pass a law stating that all new cars sold in the U.S.A. must be flexible-fuel vehicles capable of burning any combination of gasoline and alcohol. The alcohols so employed could be either methanol or ethanol.

The largest producers of both ethanol and methanol are all in the western hemisphere, with the United States having by far the greatest production potential for both. Ethanol is made from agricultural products. Methanol can also be made from biomass, as well as from natural gas or coal. American coal reserves alone are sufficient to power every car in the country on methanol for more than 500 years.

Ethanol can currently be produced for about $1.50 per gallon, and methanol is selling for $0.90 per gallon. With gasoline having roughly doubled in price recently, and with little likelihood of a substantial price retreat in the future, high alcohol-to-gasoline fuel mixtures are suddenly practical. Cars capable of burning such fuel are no futuristic dream. This year, Detroit will offer some two dozen models of standard cars with a flex-fuel option available for purchase. The engineering difference is in one sensor and a computer chip that controls the fuel-air mixture, and the employment of a corrosion-resistant fuel system. The difference in price from standard units ranges from $100 to $800.

I’ve excerpted a lot, but there’s much more; well worth reading the whole thing. His explanation of why hydrogen is such a dead-end will make you wonder why so many hopes were placed in it to begin with.

Methanol twice before has been crowned the fuel of the future. When I was in Mayor Bradley’s administration, I commissioned a report on flexible-fuel and methanol vehicles for the City of LA’s own use, and oversaw some fleet conversion. I don’t know for sure, but there might still be a methanol fuel pump in City Hall. Our primary rationale was to reduce air pollution emissions. Beginning in the early 1990s, however, methanol seemed to fall out of favor, and electric vehicles became the vogue.

We can’t keep running energy and environmental policy on fashion.

Whatever direction is taken to establish the post-oil economy will require a significant public and private investment. If today’s good answer is tomorrow’s embarassment — as too often happens in environmental policymaking — there will be no investment, and things will simply continue as before, unsustainably. The default fuel for American society is oil, because the infrastructure is already in place. If we’re ever going to replace it, the debate over “with what” has to move into a new, decisive phase — without fear or favor.

5 thoughts on “Post-Oil, an Alcohol Economy?

  1. I love it. All these commentators you read, who have a great idea but haven’t bothered to do the hard work.

    How much alcohol energy can be produced per unit of land area ? How much such land is there lying fallow in the US, currently ? How much current agricultural land would have to be given over to fuel production to meet transport (& other) needs, and what will people eat instead of that farm produce ? How much of the fuel produced is used in farming and processing, and how does the agri-chemical business (fertilisers ? pesticides ?) look without oil as a base material ?

    >>American coal reserves alone are sufficient to power every car in the country on methanol for more than 500 years

    – In my understanding, this is just plain wrong. Coal reserves are often quoted as sufficient for hundreds of years, but that’s for use *at the current rate of coal use*. As an oil replacement, it comes out to be only tens of years.

  2. So . . . the answer is? I don’t believe that anything will be done to prepare for the transition to a POE (Post Oil Economy) except by a small number of individuals and those at the top of government who obviously know it is coming. There is no energy alternative to fuel our economies at the rate they run now, and that means food and commodity production.
    And the response? Invade and intimidate the middle east and fight wars to secure their oil supply for as long as possible. Perhaps our leaders are simply hoping that “something will turn up” and that until they should grab as much of the black stuff as they can? I don’t think so. Governments MUST KNOW about what is going to happen and must be planning for it in some way. Probably well stocked bunkers I would imagine. Certainly not a planned transition to a way of life that does not involve unlimited transport on demand, excess production and licensed gluttony on a huge scale. Perhaps their analysts have already told them that millions. . . billions will die and there is nothign they can do about it!
    If all this is the case – what should we be doing as individuals?

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