About Marshall Kaplan

Marshall Kaplan is the former Dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at University of Colorado and held the Wirth Chair in Energy, Climate Change and Community Development. He also served in the Carter and Kennedy administrations and as an Advisor to Assistant Secretary Floyd Hyde when George Romney was Secretary of HUD. He was a principal in the policy advisory firm of Marshall Kaplan, Gans and Kahn. Marshall has written several books and numerous articles on regional and urban policy, New Towns, poverty, infrastructure, environment and social welfare policy. He was honored by the Colorado ADL for his contributions to the nation and community in the early 1980s.

Paul Harvey, the rest of the news and natural gas

Paul HarveyPaul Harvey was a conservative icon in radio news during the mid to end of the 20th century. While I often differed with the substance of his commentary, he was a welcome travel partner when driving, particularly on a long trip. What I liked most about him was that he generally articulated his views without being malicious, and his voice was just wonderful. He sounded like a symphonic rap musician, using iambic pentameter.

One of Harvey’s favorite phrases was here’s “the rest of the story.” Remembering it, gives me a wonderful opening for this column.

This week there were several optimistic articles on natural gas growth this past week .One article in particular caught my eye. The piece described the expanded, but still relatively low, market penetration of natural gas as a transportation fuel. Given the cost and environmental benefits of natural gas, I was pleased to read the content and see the numbers and quotations. But in Paul Harvey’s terms it did not tell “the rest of the story”!

Yes, natural gas is making inroads into the trucking industry, even among buyers of new cars, asserts the article. “The boom in natural gas production in the U.S. has ignited a revolution in the auto sector that could reshape the way Americans fuel their vehicles, market participants and analysts said in a week-long special on FOX Business.” ClearView Energy Partners, the Newport Beach, California company that is building fuel stations along major interstate trucking corridors, will likely facilitate the growth of natural gas as a fuel in trucks. It will provide one of the missing pieces that have impeded natural gas’ popularity — fear of running out of fuel. “About 25% of the truck market could convert to natural gas by 2020, according to a report by Citigroup…eight in 10 new trucks Waste Management brought in 2012 were powered by natural gas.” Your friendly bus driver’s bus is increasingly likely to run on natural gas.

“Only a tenth of a percent of natural gas consumed in U.S. last year was used for fuel in vehicles, according to the Energy Department. Of the more than 15.2 million natural gas vehicles on roads across the globe, [only] about 120,000 are in the U.S.” Natural gas clearly hasn’t taken off yet as a transportation fuel in the U.S. Kevin Book, ClearView’s managing director of research indicates that, “I think you look at locomotives, also a very interesting and potentially large market, and also some of the marine applications before you start talking about smaller passenger cars.” I suspect his negative perceptions of natural gas as a competitive fuel in cars stems from the present costs of CNG passenger vehicles and the present absence of CNG fuel stations — a possible temporary problem if ClearView’s commitment to develop a natural gas highway could extend to private automobiles. We have had many successful freedom movements in this country. There would be only relatively marginal costs to extend the capacity of the natural gas highway’s fuel stations to include CNG availability for all consumers of natural gas vehicles and to assure availability of natural gas derivative fuels like ethanol. If you build it, many of the 17 million FFVs now on the road will come and more will follow, given what’s presently on the (near term) horizon.

Here is more of “the rest of the story,” à la Paul Harvey. One of the most innovative programs to stimulate the use of natural gas, CNG, was initiated by Gov. Hickenlooper and Gov. Fallin. Under their nonpartisan umbrella, 22 states have agreed to replace older cars, when they are due to retire, with CNG cars. Their commitment will create a large pool of CNG purchases over the next few years. Detroit has agreed to work with the states and both the governors and carmakers want to use the effort to produce a less expensive CNG car for American households.

But there is more! Two companies, Coskata, Inc. and Celanese have had success in converting natural gas to ethanol and are both striving to commercialize and define strategies to market their product. If they are successful, other companies will follow in light of historical “copycat capitalism.” The result will be a fuel that will be environmentally better and clearly cheaper than gasoline. The result will also be increased demand for fuels like E85, which will generate consumer purchases of FFVs and the conversion of existing, older cars. It may also open up the pockets of investors concerning the support for future E85 pumps. If ethanol becomes popular because of price and environmental objectives, can methanol be far behind (excuse me, Percy)? Freedom to choose what you drive and what fuel you use on the high and bi ways of this nation would be consistent with the American way and creed.

Bipolar, manic depressive and natural gas

Although a bit bipolar concerning the data, the editors of Real Clear Energy published a useful graph and narrative on Tuesday. It showed the slow, steady increase of natural gas use in the U.S. over the past few years. The graph and narrative noted a 33% increase in vehicle fuel consumption since 2007. More good news for those who support natural gas, given its ability to reduce GHG emissions: the editors reported that the T. Boone Pickens’ “Natural Gas Highway” appears to offer hope that the trend will continue upward. Indeed, the EIA indicates that natural gas will increasingly substitute for gasoline in the truck, bus and rail freight sectors. So much good news! However, don’t open the champagne yet!

Now the bad news! Despite the increasing popularity of natural gas, over the next 25 years, the editors suggest it will only replace or displace 3% of the nation’s oil budget. What a bummer! But, paraphrasing Frank Sinatra (the noted oil man turned singer), when you have “your chin on the ground, there’s a lot to be learned, so look around… [we’ve] got high hopes…all problems just a toy balloon, they’ll be bursted soon, they’re just bound to go pop”…cause we’ve got high hopes.

Thanks Frank. Now, back to the editors. They correctly advised their readers that we, as a nation, will “never make any real progress until we start using liquid methanol and ethanol in regular passenger cars.” I assume the editors mean that we should increase the amount of ethanol in our cars. All of us now use at least 10% ethanol when we fill-er-up. Some of us, if we are lucky and have a flex-fuel vehicle (over 17 million of us do, but likely don’t know it), can use E15 and E85, assuming we can find a station with the necessary pumps. With the exception of a few states, such pumps are relatively few and far between. Sales of E15 and E85 constitute only a small share of the fuel market.

EIA ChartWhy? Neither ethanol not methanol is a perfect fuel. Yet, study after study indicates that, on most dimensions, they are better than gasoline. Both are cheaper, both are generally environmentally superior and both emit less GHG emissions. Competition with gasoline from both would allow the U.S. to become less dependent on oil imports and add to our nation’s security. Over time, opening fuel markets to consumers by adding choice would likely help stabilize, and even reduce, the price of gasoline and limit its frequent nonstructural cycles.

As a former dean of a major School of Public Policy, I would gladly supervise a Ph.D. thesis or an “independent” student study concerning consumer decisions relative to the purchase of gasoline vs. replacement fuels, particularly ethanol and the acquisition of new or the conversion of existing cars to FFV status. The student could start off with some reasonable, contextual assumptions and/or hypotheses. For example:

1. Consumer decisions about alternative fuels often must be speculative, given the fact that oil companies, most times, prohibit their franchises from adding a replacement fuel pump or require them to put the pump in a hidden sidebar location.

2. There are sufficient anecdotes that price management is also a barrier to the development of competitive fuel markets. Data descriptive of the life cycle of ethanol suggests that costs for production, distribution and sales would permit ethanol to compete well, price-wise, with gas. However, anecdotes suggest that producers, distributors, blenders and retail stations — including independent stations — often raise or lower the price of gasoline relative to replacement fuels, which often impedes real consumer choice. There are no angels here. Retail stations carrying E85 have been known to raise its price to capture extra revenue.

3. Although the gap is narrowing in light of technological improvements, replacement fuels, including ethanol, get less mileage per gallon than gasoline. But, as noted earlier, the costs at the pump, if recognized in the price per gallon, generally work out in favor of ethanol. However, consumers find the calculations difficult to make without the addition of simple signs at the pump, a willing and patient station attendant, or an app in your hand. As a rule of thumb, replacement fuels should be at least 22% cheaper than gasoline to cement the deal for a knowledgeable consumer.

4. Despite EPA studies and approvals to the contrary, groups mainly associated with, supported by or historically favorable to the oil industry have planted the worry seed in car owners’ minds. E15 and, likely E85, they say, will damage engines that are actually built to use both. Saying it often enough has likely made many consumers consciously or subconsciously avoid replacement fuels like ethanol. The best answer to bad speech — whether written or oral — is good speech. Yet, only a handful of writers, editors, TV and cable anchors have responded to negative stories and rumors about replacement fuel safety.

I could go on. But I am over my word limit. Thank you, Real Clear Energy, for making me manic depressive — my friends would say it’s a rather normal state. I hope the brief comments by your editors will be discussed over and over again by others and stimulate strategies to increase the use of natural gas based ethanol, and someday soon, the legalization of methanol.

Bring back Woodstock and passion, and bring on replacement fuels

WoodstockThe ‘60s and early ‘70s were exhilarating at times and depressing at other times. America seemed angry and divided about the Vietnam War, the struggle over civil rights and equal rights for women. Many of those who were against the war and supported civil rights for minorities and equal rights for women were passionate about their views and saw themselves as change agents in an America that they viewed as perfectible but not perfect. They debated, they marched, they shouted, they irritated, and they (at times) exceeded legal boundaries. Some even took personal risks by becoming Freedom Riders in the south. By the early ‘70s, they had made a positive difference. They had become legends in their own time, capped off by Woodstock — an exotic, culture-changing, music rebellion concert. America would never again be the same!

I ask myself why the effort to break up the oil industry’s monopoly at the gas pump has won intellectual interest among some, but not the passion and the emotion of the ‘60s. No one is riding in a vehicle column through the nation, stopping at gas stations to plead for an opportunity for consumers to choose among alternative or replacement fuels. No one is shouting en masse about the extensive environmental harm and economic loss caused by our reliance on gasoline. Very few are concerned with the widening income gap and increasing poverty in America. Where is the concern about the negative impact that gas prices have on the purchasing power of the poor?

Surprisingly, very few Americans seem worried that most of the wars we are fighting either overtly or covertly involve (to some degree) our or our allies’ dependence on oil and, sometimes, lead to our becoming allied with some unsavory folks. I keep remembering a relatively recent conversation I had with a special services soldier who quite clearly indicated that he and his colleagues believed the U.S. was in Iraq not because of the quest for democracy or freedom, but because of the West’s need for oil. He indicated that it was b.s. — all this talk about building democracy. Whether it’s Iraq, Syria, or Egypt, Americans themselves are having growing doubts about why we have been, are now, or might be in the future, involved in Middle Eastern wars. Many, if not most, hope that their kids are not the first in and the last out.

What is it going to take to stimulate the adrenaline of Americans when it comes to the oil industry’s ability to limit competition at the gas pump through price management, franchise agreements, and political muscle in Congress? I suspect the draft helped energize the public’s antipathy toward the Vietnam War, but for the most part, the anti-Vietnam movement secured the intense support of only a minority of Americans. Indeed, polls at the time indicated that both the women’s and the civil rights movements also had less than majority support. Yet, in all three instances, the overlapping minorities among the population wielded a big political voice, bigger than their numbers.

Why? I suspect media-savvy, bright, and committed leadership had much to do with it. Further, they were helped by the tragic assassinations of President Kennedy; his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy; and Martin Luther King, Jr. Growing public distrust of politicians caused by the gap between the facts on the ground and press releases concerning Vietnam increased the willingness of the American public to support the marchers. Polls began to shift on the war, civil rights, and equality for women. All three issues won increasing numbers and granted legitimacy to efforts to end the war and to assist the “have nots” and the “have less” among us. Given the federal budget authorizations and appropriations, an argument could be made that the halcyon days of the Great Society actually occurred during the first years of President Nixon. This is not heresy. Look at the budget details from 1965 through the early ‘70s.

Can we replicate the passion associated with the Vietnam War, civil rights and women’s rights movements and focus it on more democracy and freedom for consumers concerning choice of fuels? Probably not! The issues involved are difficult to grasp for the public. It is unlikely that families will sit down at the dinner table and stimulate conversation on the benefits and costs of replacement fuels or flex-fuel vehicles. Americans are not going to “March on Exxon” as they did on the Pentagon or gather at the National Mall in D.C. in the hundreds of thousands as they did for civil rights.

The term “silent majority” has been used without a hard and sustained predictable meaning in the last four or five decades. It’s a phrase that needs amplification and definition today. It could become the missing public change agent concerning replacement fuels. Coalition building among supportive pro-environmentalists, businesses, consumers, and anti-poverty groups could lead to the development of multitasked, innovative, and interactive national education program with a broad reach (e.g., town meetings, the newspaper and website articles, webinars, Twitter, movies, YouTube, etc.). Its success could convert a now-silent majority or near majority into a thoughtful, articulate majority focused on breaking up the monopoly at the pump. Success would be reflected in poll numbers supportive of federal, state, and local leaders who are willing to push for open fuel markets and increased FFVs. There would be a coalition of the willing; that is, an increasing number of Americans who would provide backbone to public policymakers who, in turn, would commit to challenging the oil companies’ understandable desire to sustain restricted fuel markets and the status quo favoring gasoline over environmentally better, safer, and cheaper replacement fuels. Their support would be conveyed through voting, and the use of innovative communication technology, rather than marching. The results would be illustrated by new, important, expanded democratically made choices by you and me, regarding fuel and vehicles — and maybe a new Woodstock composed of music celebrating America’s new freedoms. I didn’t go to the last one, but will go to the next one celebrating expanded choice for consumers, a healthier economy, and an improved environment. ­

Winston, what would you do concerning natural gas?

Winston ChurchillWhere is Churchill when we need him? How many psychobabble articles and cable commentary about Putin and Russia could we have done without by just remembering good old Winnie’s marvelous, insightful quote in 1939? It’s as near perfection as we are going to get in trying to understand Mr. Putin and Russia. Both are “riddle[s] wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian [and Putin’s] national interest.” (The word Putin is my addition — I am sure Churchill would not have minded.) What does Putin want? Apparently not only full control of Crimea, but also instability in Eastern Ukraine.

Okay, now some of you readers are saying the same about the U.S. We seem to accept Russia’s takeover of Crimea…ah, Russia had it once anyway and it has a big naval base there. Sounds vaguely historically familiar. What about the other place, they say. What was its name? Guantanamo and Cuba! Oh, no?! Please let’s focus on Eastern Ukraine.

Forget consistency and remember Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Consistency [in foreign policy] is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Again, pardon the added-on term, foreign policy.)

Now how does oil come into all of this? None of us, not just President Obama, want to fight a war over the Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine or Crimea. If he were running again, Obama would probably borrow from Woodrow Wilson’s campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” at least big wars, particularly with corrupt nations some of which have a history of fascism..

Alright, let’s use tough energy sanctions — oil and natural gas. if the regulations concerning sanctions were tough, they might really hurt Russia’s economy and its ability to move out of the economic doldrums. Let’s hit them where it hurts! No, apparently, we will not, at least for now. Why? Well, Western Europe and our new ally, the Ukraine, depend on natural gas. Without it, both would be in for cold winters and probably a severe industrial recession. So what did our leaders do? They excluded natural gas from the list of recent sanctions. I suspect they, also, will allow Russia and the West to continue to trade in oil not involving new technology from the West.

Absence of natural gas in Europe and the Ukraine (and probably other Eastern Europe nations) is a plus for the U.S. We can make it up by selling natural gas. Isn’t what’s good for the U.S. bad for Russia and Mr. Putin?

Maybe, maybe not…or maybe the view that the U.S can be savior of Western Europe is a myth. Or maybe it’s just too complex for political leaders to grab hold of instantly.

Some verities to deal with:

1. Even with the current rush to permit the export of natural gas, before terminals get built and tankers are ready and environmental issues are disposed of, the first large volume of natural gas would not reach Ukraine or Western Europe until 2016 or later.

2. The U.S., despite the increase in shale development and natural gas production, still imports natural gas to meet domestic supplies — about 12.5% in total. Like big oil, exports of natural gas are to a large degree being sought to secure a higher prices overseas than in the U.S. Hurting Russia for U.S producers is a side show.

3. Russia, ostensibly, can produce natural gas and ship it by pipeline, rail or boat cheaper than we can. According to experts, the cost of U.S.-produced, transported and sold natural gas in Europe and the Ukraine is and will be much higher than Russian-produced and transported natural gas sold globally. Note in this context that Russia just cemented a $4 billion deal for Russia to sell oil to China. Will the Europeans and Ukrainians want higher-priced natural gas from the U.S.?

4. Oh, I almost forgot. Just last winter, U.S. residents in many states, particularly eastern states, nearly froze because of shortages of natural gas resulting from lack of adequate pipeline capacity and pipeline congestion. Consequently, the gas they secured came at very high prices. If ports can be built, pipeline amendments for the east coast cannot be far behind and probably should come first, if money is tight. Can we afford both, given uncertainties concerning price of natural gas and cost of drilling in tight areas? Sure. But the tradeoffs need to be carefully balanced by policymakers and the long term for investors must look bright.

It’s a puzzlement. Our policy seen by many nonpartisan observers as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery…” I will know sanctions are real when gas is included. What I won’t know is whether it will make a difference to Russia, given the fungibility of import-needy nations like China. Sanctions may bring both China and Russia something that communism has failed to do — build back a broken alliance. What I also don’t know is whether the growth of exports will significantly raise natural gas prices over time in the U.S. and lower the price differential with oil, and its derivative gasoline. If it does, producers and distributors may get rich, but opportunities for something I do care about — the development and widespread use of natural gas-based ethanol as a replacement fuel — may be impeded significantly. If this occurs, the environment, our economy and low- and moderate-income Americans may be worse off for it. Policymaking in today’s world is difficult and is something you often cannot fully learn in school.

Optimist and pessimist, the Oil & Gas Journal and replacement fuels

Shutterstock“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds and the pessimist fears this is true” — James Branch Cabell. Or, as I once said in a presentation in China after Tiananmen Square, “a strategic optimist is a realist with brains.”

I live with the hope we can do better as nation with respect to the environment, our economy and the quality of life choices open to Americans, particularly low- and moderate-income Americans. But I worry that given the ideological and related political divisiveness among us, we may not.

In this context, after reading the recent article, “SAFE: Report’s ‘flash points’ emphasize US transportation fuel problem” in the Oil & Gas Journal, often seen by some as a mouthpiece for the oil industry, my thoughts reflected both optimism and pessimism. I concluded that I was a realist tempered by experience (and hopefully with a brain). Okay, what did the piece suggest that stimulated my mental and emotional adrenaline? Two or three quotes used by the author Nick Snow, respected Washington editor of OGJ, taken from a national conference convened by Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE):

“A proliferation of global oil geopolitical ‘flash points’ (e.g., conflicts in countries or within countries that limit or could limit the supply of oil) makes it even more urgent for the U.S. to aggressively reduce its dependence on crude oil for transportation fuels…If we could be only 65% dependent on oil for our transportation fuels by 2025 instead of 90%, it would make a tremendous difference…We also need better politics developed by people who can find win-win situations so we can move forward…We all agree that we need to diversify our transportation sources away from oil.”

Nick Snow is no blazing liberal. According to his resume, Mr. Snow has spent 30 years or so as a journalist covering oil issues, many of those for media outlets friendly to oil interests (e.g., Oil Daily).

Have we reached nirvana? Did the article in the OGJ signal that big or small oil companies will soon announce their commitment to replacement fuels, like natural gas-based ethanol and methanol? Their support, given the fact that some oil companies already own significant natural gas fields, could be important from a public policy and an “on the ground production and distribution” perspective.

When I was a kid, older members of my family, if they wanted something but knew it was impossible to secure, would say, “I should live so long.” In some respects, while I’m surprised by the selected quotes used in the article by Mr. Snow, I doubt it heralds an epiphany by leaders of the oil industry or their companies.

Why am I a wannabe optimist but a realistic pessimist? Oil companies’ primary behavior over the past decade or more has been to oppose the development of most replacement fuels, FFVs and open fuel markets. Sometimes they have done this through other organizations that they influence or control, and sometimes directly. Clearly, gas station franchises granted by oil companies remain tied to a “just say no” position on replacement fuels, or a back- or side-of-the-station mandate concerning location of replacement-fuel pumps. For the most part, their reaction to “flash points” has been “drill, baby, drill,” and their battle cry has been that only more drilling will make the nation oil independent. This is a curious stance, since companies are simultaneously seeking to increase their ability to export globally. America still imports about a third of its oil, while retail prices for gasoline at most stations remain high.

I’m afraid that the OGJ piece by Snow is not a harbinger of good tidings concerning oil company endorsement of replacement fuels — at least any time soon. Rather, the article reflects a willingness of the author to honestly describe a major issue facing the nation, that is, the disproportionate share of oil in transportation fuels. Regrettably, excluded from the piece is a narrative about the fact that oil converted to gasoline has a significant negative effect on the environment, and that oil imports still take a toll on the economy. Replacement fuels would address security, environmental and economic issues, and related national objectives in a much more positive way.

I have a vested interest in remembering the famous Andrews Sisters. How many of you remember them? They played in my uncle’s band for a short time. So let me end, somewhat inappropriately, using the last stanza of one of their hit tunes “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” by composer Sammy Fain. I am sure neither the sisters nor Sammy would mind. With respect to the oil companies, “I am aware. My heart is a sad affair. There is much disillusion there. But I can dream, can’t I?”

Dreaming is about all you can do now, with respect to getting oil companies to develop, or support the development of, flexible replacement fuels. Maybe someday!

The journey of a thousand miles, replacement fuels and FFVs

President John F. Kennedy, first lady Jackie, and the poet Robert Frost at a dinner for Nobel Prize winners at the White House, April 29, 1962. (Wikimedia Commons)The headlines recently have been terrible — a commercial plane was shot down over the Ukraine, there’s war in the Middle East and more. It makes you wonder, over and over again, about man and woman’s inhumanity to his or her fellow men and women.

While certainly not equal in impact on the world at the present time, I happened to run across one point of light concerning a set of innovations which, in the long run, could positively impact climate change, security and consumer choice issues. It was reflected in a couple of articles describing the partnership between the state of California’s Energy Commission and Cummins Engines to develop an E85-fueled engine that apparently cuts Co2 by up to 80 percent (read it in Fleets and Fuels) in medium-duty trucks.

According to Cummins Engines and the Commission, a relatively small 4-cylinder, 2.8-liter engine has been successfully subjected to 1,000 miles and 1,500 hours of testing. It is now going through validation tests in Sacramento.

The story is a welcome one. Cummins indicates that the engine can generate 250 horsepower and 450 pound-foot of torque using E85. “Using lignocellulosic-derived E85, the powertrain’s efficiency features 75 to 80 percent lower well-to-wheels carbon emissions than gas engines; depending on the drive cycle…Cellulosic E85 is not derived from tilling, fertilizing and harvesting corn…Using corn-derived E85, the high thermal efficiency and power-to-weight ratio of this engine results in 50 to 80 percent lower well-to-wheels carbon emissions compared with the gasoline engine.”

Based on the Cummins documentation, California’s Energy Commission indicates “that successful completion of the project may result in a new market for E85 fuel now dominated by gasoline and diesel in the 19,500 lb. step-van fleet market.” The agency estimates greenhouse-gas savings as great as 69 percent, or 10 to 20 percent using corn based ethanol.

Fortunately, the general principles guiding development of Cummins’ engine may help improve flex-fuel automobiles and grant Americans more confidence in the environmental, price and economic benefits associated with extended use of E85.

Lessons learned may increase the nation’s ability to reduce GHG emissions. Based on what Cummins has done, using smaller engines extends the benefit of E85. Diesel-like cylinder pressures are important. Ethanol’s high-octane rating generates more engine efficiency. Use of state-of-the art sensors for spark ignition and coordination of stop-and-start functions enhances efficiency and reduces emissions. E85 is clearly a safe fuel.

The knowledge gained from the Cummins effort could lead to better flex-fuel vehicles and could support the effort to use increased technology fixes for older, non-flex-fuel cars and FFV twins. Perhaps the biggest benefit from the partnership between California and Cummings relates to the boost it could give to the search for replacement fuels, as well as the myth-busting understanding it could provide consumers about the safety of E85. It is a safe fuel, assuming engine adaptation and software amendment.

Elon Musk’s proposal to share Tesla’s electric-car patents and ideas might at least encourage increased collaboration among FFV makers in Detroit and the potential players in the conversion industry that likely would emerge, subsequent to EPA testing and approval of older vehicles for conversion. Even improved cooperation at the margin would could expand production of new FFV vehicles and expand conversion of older vehicles. For automakers and makers of conversion kits, as well as developers of FFV software technology, successful collaboration would generate larger markets.

Increased use of E85 through conversion of existing cars and the increased production of new FFV vehicles would help meet national and local environmental objectives, reduce gasoline prices and provide consumers with lower fuel costs, apart from gasoline. Both would also reduce dependency on foreign oil. Paraphrasing the poet Robert Frost, while FFVs — new or converted — are on a road less traveled now, as John F. Kennedy indicated, the journey of a thousand miles must begin with one step. The road less traveled now has more replacement-fuel drivers and FFVs than ever. Because of this fact, the journey of a thousand miles toward alternative fuel choices has made progress and, hopefully soon, will move at a faster speed. Success will mean a better quality of life for us all. It’s good news!

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

USA, USA, USA…The search for competitive fuel choices

USA supporters celebrate a goal“USA, USA, USA, USA.” No, I didn’t just come from watching the U.S. playing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But after reading the glowing, cheerleading, overly enthusiastic, often-nationalistic media accounts of the U.S. overtaking the Saudis in oil production, the win-lose aspects of the soccer chant somehow became embedded in my persona (like counting sheep or gas pumps at night when I can’t sleep). We beat the Saudis at their own game — oil. We’re number one…wow! Next, will we emulate the Saudis and place onerous and discriminatory restrictions on women drivers and, unlike the Saudis, argue that it’s a conservation measure? Of course not! We don’t have to be number one in everything. But oil does make strange bedfellows, and equally strange behavior, as well as policies.

Unfortunately, most of the media stories avoid analysis of what the new oil prominence of the U.S. means to the nation and world. Yes, increased production likely means less dependence on the Middle East, particularly Saudi oil. Indeed, we now import about 33% of oil needs, the lowest percentage in years.

But oil independence remains a myth. Oil interests are pushing for a reduction of regulations concerning exports of U.S. crude oil and have always exported considerable refined oil products allowed by the law. Their motives, despite frequent public comments to the contrary, are generally to sell to the price, which means to the buyer who offers the most return. He, she or it frequently is a global purchaser. Independence is a slogan that often blurs motive and reflects good politics but bad substance and contrary to reality.

The U.S., as the most powerful western nation, irrespective of any mathematical domestic surplus, will continue to extend its role as defender of the global supply chain from the Middle East or elsewhere. While we may be less dependent on foreign oil, U.S. leaders have, in the past, and likely will in the future, use a combination of diplomacy and military threats and action to defend and sustain the flow of foreign oil to allies or assumed allies. In this context, the role we play in the world extends our dependency. Unfortunately, wars will be fought and U.S. soldiers will die because of this felt dependency.

Most of the “USA, USA, USA” chants in the media coverage of our new oil prowess, implicitly neglects the difficult juxtaposition between increased oil production and supplies and higher gas prices. Less dependence hasn’t brought the reduction, or even stabilization, of gas prices promised by the oil industry. Gasoline in California is now generally well over $4 a gallon for regular, and averages over $3.60 a gallon across the nation. Why? We have a surplus, don’t we? Oil companies want to export more, and it appears that they will be able to do just that, soon. As Dr. Pangloss asked in “Candide,” is this the “best of all possible worlds” (let me add, for the U.S.)?

Clearly, the cost of oil at the pump is not strongly linked (at the present time) to the amount of U.S. oil that shows up on EIA calculations and projections. Both price and supply are going up simultaneously. Yes, there is uncertainty, given events in the Middle East and yes, uneven growth around the world has increased demand in some areas and suppressed it in others. The link between high prices and the Middle East is difficult to measure precisely. Consumer costs per gallon are likely affected more by investors, as well as speculation on Wall Street, than the actual numbers concerning increased production of U.S. oil.

So, apart from prayer and penitence, what can we do to get a better deal for consumers, and to prevent gasoline from becoming a negative factor concerning U.S. GDP growth and the environment? How can we help assure that being number one means robust economic growth, more income in the wallets of Americans (particularly low-income Americans), increased security and fewer dirty emissions?

These are not easy questions, and they do not lend themselves to simple ideological responses. Clearly, as renewable fuels and vehicles that meet the incomes and desires of most Americans become available, both will play a vital role in America’s future. But reliance on coal-fired utilities for power in some areas of the nation, battery costs, mileage limitations from single battery charges, and lack of infrastructure impede their ability to have a significant positive impact at the present. The market for renewable fuels and vehicles is relatively small and will remain so until technological advances catch up with potential demand.

Where is the Greek philosopher Diogenes when we need him? We have a path in front of us that would buy time toward a better American future, one that could offer competition to gasoline — competition that would be good for the economy, the consumer and the environment. Increased availability of replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol, combined with large-scale conversion of older cars to flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and increased production of new FFVs by Detroit, would give gasoline a run for the money, if gas-only stations become fuel stations and provide consumers with a choice. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, less than one percent of all gas stations in the U.S. that are branded by the big oil companies offer E15 or E85.

I remain an optimist that more freedom will reign soon at the pump. The noted people’s philosopher, Charles M. Schulz, creator of “Peanuts” comic strips, lessened my fears about the future when he said, “Stop worrying about the world ending today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.” USA, USA, USA. Fuel choice, fuel choice, fuel choice!

Resources for the future and an alternative vehicle and fuel pathway

Auguste ComteI have been a fan of Resources for the Future (RFF) since my early days in Washington many years ago. While the organization’s reports won’t keep you awake at night nor can they easily convert into a Bollywood movie, they generally provide sound nonpartisan analyses of resource and environmental issues. In this context, the Fuel Freedom Foundation (FFF) retained RFF to independently study the potential economic, environmental and national security gains from replacing a portion of domestic gasoline use in the light-duty fleet with various natural gas-based fuels such as ethanol or methanol.

The request reflected the relatively large price differential between the growing supply of natural gas and gasoline and FFF’s assumption that natural gas-based fuels (ethanol and methanol) could not only offer the U.S. security benefits, they would be cheaper and cleaner than gasoline. If FFF’s assumption was right, public and private sector strategies to encourage the conversion of older vehicles to FFVs and to increase the production of new FFV vehicles in Detroit would seemingly be in order. Similarly, finding financially feasible ways to produce, develop, distribute and successfully market natural gas-based alcohol fuels would appear quite sound.

RFF’s study was completed last September and is available online.

I have read the document many times. It is compelling because it honestly portrays gaps in information and uncertainties concerning public policy and regulation, technology, geography, price trends, competition, and availability as well as access to natural gas-based fuel. Indeed, embedded in the report is the fact that policymaking in public, nonprofit or private sectors or predictions concerning consumer behavior is never perfect. As complexity increases, decisions often require reliance on perfectibility over time, rather than perfection in the present time.

Apart from RFF’s marshalling of available, relevant data and its related analysis, the study’s conclusions are supportive of leadership groups and leaders who seek an “alternative path” in support of the use of natural gas-based fuels and the conversion of older cars to flex-fuel vehicles.

What RFF concluded is that the only replacement fuel currently available to the more than ten million FFV E85-capable vehicles “does not have a cost advantage at the pump over conventional gasoline.” But assuming companies like Coskata, Inc. and Celanese are able to deliver on their financial modeling, live tests and price predictions concerning the production and distribution of natural gas-based ethanol, owners of FFVs, including owners of new and older converted vehicles could see cost benefits near $1 per GGE (gasoline gallon equivalent) in the very near future.

This is no small benefit. It will be particularly important to low and moderate-income folks, permitting them more choices when it comes to jobs, housing and other basic needs. It will also reduce the strain caused by reduced economic and income growth on middle class households. RFF also indicates, with somewhat less certainty as to how much, that there will likely be environmental benefits.

Making this new replacement fuel path viable will require the EPA to lower the costs of certification of kits that help convert older cars to FFVs, and to sanction relatively simple software adjustments, particularly for newer FFVs and their twins (not the human kind but automobiles whose engines reflect FFF characteristics. This path will also need the EPA and advocates of natural gas-based ethanol to work together to develop a vehicle-testing procedure for older cars that is both cost efficient, sound and hopefully, relatively quickly. Finally, it will necessitate a fuel market that reduces, if not eliminates, the almost monopolistic conditions generally imposed by oil companies and often supported, at least implicitly, by government policies and regulations.

Consumers, clearly, would benefit from more competition at the pump and from more pumps devoted to replacement fuels. Auguste Comte, the great 19th century philosopher and founder of positivism, never saw a gasoline station, but his simple motto, “Love as a principle [need for increased natural gas-based flex fuels and need for flex-fuel cars], the order as a foundation [development of policies and infrastructure for natural gas-based fuels and increased FFVs] and progress as a goal [extend consumer choice]” nicely frames RFF’s narrative. In turn, RFF’s study, while recognizing the value of renewable fuels, supports an alternative, natural gas-based replacement fuel as well as a vehicular pathway to help achieve national, regional and local economic, social welfare and environmental benefits. It’s near July Fourth. Let’s move toward freer increased choices among fuels and increased vehicular capacity to use them.

A return to making love, not war – Iraq and replacement fuels

Make love not warEarly on I wrote a column about an unanticipated Thanksgiving dinner conversation with a special operations soldier who had served in Iraq. His comment, in response to a question I asked about whether he and his buddies knew why they were sent to Iraq, was brief and blunt: “oil and U.S. security.” He would have none of what he thought was b.s. about “freedom and democracy” or “weapons of mass destruction.” Before I asked the question I actually already knew what his answer would be, but a glass of wine, a wonderful piece of turkey and good company suggested that my inquiry would lead to an opening for a longer repartee on the Middle East and U.S. policy. It did, and again oil and oil politics were the dominant theme.

I suspect that many of the writers of today’s headlines and op-ed articles anticipated Republican Eric Cantor would win. They are now arguing, in sometimes misleading reference terms concerning democracy, inter-sectarian harmony and morality, for a more aggressive U.S. policy toward the invasion by Sunni radicals of parts of what once on a map called the nation of Iraq.

But the real issue for many “experts,” I again suspect, is oil — a fear, whether factual or not, that if Iraq collapses, the world oil supply (already close to equilibrium concerning demand and supply) will relatively quickly reflect shortages and much higher prices per barrel of oil ($150 a barrel) and oil’s product, gasoline ($5 and more).

Should we be sending kids to fight for our apparent God-given right to Middle Eastern oil? Although I think a lot about the ethics of public decision making, I am not an ethicist. But as long as there are alternatives to supply, my hard-nosed policy advice would be against war or the steps that might lead to war. Iraq has not been the noble state that welcomed America in to rescue it ostensibly from Saddam Hussein. Its form of democracy has been limited, corrupt and sectarian.

What should our calculations be, concerning alternative supplies of oil? First, we ought to really think through whether a full or partial shutdown of Iraqi oil wells will mean a damn. Iraq alone supplies a small share of U.S. oil imports. Most of the often-shrill economic coverage of the radical Sunni invasion and its potential impact on U.S. oil seems to relate more to perceptions, not empirical evidence, about shortages and prices. Commentators “perceive” what the oil markets might or will do — really what oil speculators and investors will or will not do — based on what is currently happening in Iraq, not on facts on the ground. Neil Cavuto of Fox Business said, “Oil is a commodity, a global commodity, and like any stock in almost any market, it often trades on issues having little to do with basic fundamentals, and more to do with simple fear.”

Assuming, however, there is a real worldwide shortage of oil as a result of a closure of Iraqi wells, or that fear drives the prices up so much that there is a strain to the economy, the Saudis, probably, among all the OPEC nations, are the only ones with sufficient oil in the ground to make an immediate difference concerning supply. But will they? They have shown some flexibility in the past to U.S. petitioning. They have also, at times, despite their security relationship to the U.S., turned us down. This time around the Saudis could well be more than a bit sensitive, particularly if it looks like the radical Sunnis might win. The Kingdom is vulnerable with respect to a radical brand of Sunniism. I bet they also fear a potential Shiite effort to push the radicals back, particularly one led by Iran. Life is never simple for the House of Saud.

Okay, where are we? Oil is sold in an international marketplace. No matter which side you are on regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, if approved and completed, it will not have a major impact on U.S. gas supply or prices. Ask your friendly oil refinery or oil company executive where he or she believes Keystone-supplied oil will be going. Most of the assumed supply will be traded internationally for the highest global price. The predicted increased supply of U.S.-produced gasoline will probably help diminish price increases slightly, but don’t make a bet on how much. Today, a price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is well over $4 in California and U.S. production is at a very high level.

What would likely help keep gasoline prices from spiking significantly and, at the same time, lessen the amplitude of the cycles is a commitment to competition in the fuel marketplace. Let Adam Smith reign! Allow safe, cheaper, environmentally better replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol (and someday soon, methanol) to compete with gasoline. Encourage the conversion of older vehicles to flex-fuel vehicles! Push for renewable fuels and related vehicles that appeal to a larger market than at present, given costs and design constraints! Reduce our dependence on imported oil! Make love, not war! Drive (excuse the pun) for strategic solutions!

Shakespeare and Julia Child on monopolies, competition and alternative fuels

shutterstock_78887653You must remember the famous community activist who once asked, “To be, or not to be, that is the policy and behavior question; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously high, constantly shifting gasoline prices or to take arms against a sea of troubles generated by monopolistic fuel markets and open them up and end them.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare, now that we need him, is no longer available. But his question, articulated by his political friend Hamlet, still needs to be answered. I suggest we respond to his query in the context of another question: Is competition in the market for vehicular fuel a public good and in the public interest? Ah ha, you ask, why must we ask this question? Don’t we live in a capitalist or quasi-capitalist nation? Gosh, ever since we all were kids, were we not brought up on the wisdom of free markets and their ostensible link to freedom and democracy, a trifecta holy grail?

Sure we were! But the presented wisdom apparently didn’t mean all markets, and most important for this article, the market where most of us purchase fuel. By and large, the market for fuel is limited to a single, generally similar, primary product — gasoline. Competition, when it exists, generates from relatively small price differences, more often than not. Overblown value propositions in advertising concerning engine performance benefits from brand X or Y notwithstanding.

Consumers who, many times, assiduously read the papers or go online to find out where different brands of tires are cheapest or travel miles to visit dealers to get a perceived “good deal” on a car are frequently constrained to their neighborhood gas stations or the stations located near the nearest shopping center or big box store. While price may be a key factor in driving their decision as to which station will fill up their tank, absence of diverse fuel alternatives results in a relatively narrow band of prices per gallon and a competitive floor on consumer savings and costs.

Opening up gas markets will be tough. The oil industry controls or strongly influences over 40 percent of the stations and holds a big, profitable stick concerning what can be sold and how it can be sold at its franchised facilities. Prices are set low enough to scare independents into selecting less-than-favorable locations, or pricey enough to give them some room to keep their own costs relatively high.

To date, state pilot or demonstration programs concerning alternative fuels like ethanol and methanol have had mixed results. Why? Their costs of production and their environmental/GHG costs are lower than gasoline. Are we Americans just dumb? No. Initiatives to date have had to surmount problems including: consumer access to fuel stations with flex-fuel pumps (their costs range from $50,000 to over $100,000); a growing but still relatively small percentage of flex fuel autos compared to the total number of vehicles; the lack of consumer information concerning their own flex-fuel vehicle’s ability to use ethanol; the fear generated by some interest groups often related to the oil industry about the impact of alternative fuels on engines; the seeming ability of the oil industry to manage local prices; and the decisions by supply chain participants, particularly retailers to raise alternative fuel prices to capture immediate profits (reducing their intermediate and long-term ability — as the new kid on the block — to compete with gasoline.)

Evidence from Brazil suggests that demand emanating from an educated public, combined with a commitment to increase the pool of alternative-fuel vehicles and readily accessible fuel stations with ethanol pumps will cause a reduction in gasoline prices. Juliano J. Assunção, Joao Paulo Pessoa and Leonardo Rezende noted in a December 2013 London School of Economics publication, “Our estimates suggest that the model prediction is correct and that as the percentage of flex cars increase by 10%, ethanol and gasoline energy equivalent prices per liter fall by approximately 8 cents and 2 cents, respectively. Considering the volume of sales and size of the flex fuel fleet in 2007, a rough estimate suggests consumer savings to the order of 70 million Reais in the Rio de Janeiro state that year. Our estimates also show that the price gap as well as the price correlation between the two fuels has increased with the increased penetration of flex fuel cars.” Other studies have suggested similar positive impacts.

A U.S. recipe appears clear and consistent with America’s assumed belief in letting the market decide most resource allocation issues connected to the production of non-social welfare related goods and services. Ingredient one: Amend laws and regulations to encourage individual owners to convert older cars to flex-fuel automobiles; ingredient two: mix the resulting converted cars with newer flex-fuel vehicles to create a large flex-fuel pool; ingredient three: liberally sprinkle in enough information to inform consumers and potential-ethanol-supply-chain participants, including potential blenders and retailers, of the potential demand for ethanol as a fuel; ingredient four: add real, solid seasoning to the mix by fostering development, distribution and the sale of natural-gas-based ethanol to achieve significant increased environmental and cost benefits. Julia Child couldn’t build a better dish for the nation as it simultaneously tries to expand the viability of renewable fuels, and Shakespeare’s friend, Hamlet, would not need antidepressants.