Over A Barrel has been following Mathew Wald, of New York Times fame, for some time. His narratives are more often than not good for the mind and, sometimes, the soul. Like a good bowl of chicken soup, they are generally non-ideological and provocative. It is in this context that I was somewhat disappointed in his Aug. 1 blog for the Times.
Wald’s piece reviewed the recent effort by the U.S. Department of Energy to secure views from various energy-based groups on how to accelerate the adoption of new fuels and technologies between now and 2050 in the transportation fuel market dominated by oil and its derivative gasoline. He focused on one of the groups, the National Petroleum Council, and what several of its members reported in writing and orally to the Department. For example,
1. It’s too early to pick winners among hybrid vehicles, vehicles running on biofuels, compressed or liquefied natural gas or battery-electric and fuel-cell vehicles. But the internal combustion engine is likely to be the dominant propulsion system for decades to come.
2. Substantial increases in vehicle efficiency are possible, but total energy use is likely to grow because the number of miles driven by Americans will increase by 60-80 percent.
3. Fuel economy for light-duty vehicles could increase by 50 percent because of new lightweight materials, improving aerodynamics, reducing rolling resistance, etc. Hybridization and electrification of vehicles, however, could produce far larger benefits.
4. Reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent by 2050, the Department’s target, will be impossible. Yes, emissions can be reduced! Progress will depend on making fuels from cellulosic sources, or the portions of crops that are not food, and on advances in battery powered vehicles whose energy comes from renewable or nuclear sources.
Converting vehicles to natural gas, generally, was seen as a positive step toward greenhouse gas reduction and energy independence, although it was not universally endorsed as a major factor by members of the Council. A senior official at Chevron was skeptical. He indicated that, although natural gas has been front and center for two decades, it has not been successful so far in the light-duty market. A former chairperson from Cummins-Wesport, involved in natural gas, was more optimistic. He noted that the savings resulting from switching to natural gas was only a half a dollar two decades ago and is now about $1.50 a gallon. He also suggested that the success of oil shale technology will change the dynamics.
Up to now, Wald has functioned as a good reporter. But what I missed in the Aug. 1 article was his proven analytical capacity. The National Petroleum Council is not exactly unbiased. Their seeming muted response to natural gas was predictable, as was their lack of genuine enthusiasm for meeting GHG targets. They’re oil folks! Maybe next time Mr. Wald can summarize the views of other advocate groups with contrary views as well, hopefully independent organizations that have studied the future of alternative fuels.
Wald also seemed to miss the fact that the National Petroleum Council and many of its members, to some extent, have helped create and continue to create the conditions that make their predictions self-fulfilling. The Council has a powerful policy voice. If it and its members supported reducing the restrictions that limit the market for alternative fuels, encouraged Congress to support open-fuels legislation, advocated increased flex-fuel use and development, and facilitated the adaptation of present gas stations to flex-fuel stations, I suspect, the 2050 data would reflect less use of petroleum and reduced dependency on oil as well as gasoline. Consumers would reap the benefits of lower fuel costs, and the nation would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation fuel markets will work well only if strategic cost and pricing information is clearly available and if unnecessary restrictions, now in place, granting primacy to gasoline are zeroed out. Over the Barrel does not expect the Petroleum Council and its members to change their agenda.
But hope springs eternal!
Some oil companies have acquired stakes in natural gas, generally for use in power plants, and research on alternative fuels seems to have picked up. However, oil and gasoline still are the industry’s major dinner ticket and significant behavior changes concerning opening up the transportation market, likely, will be slow. Maybe in future articles Wald can look at the industry’s numbers and projections with more analytical skepticism. He has been and remains a journalist well worth reading.+