The best of all possible worlds – dependency, electric, oil and natural gas

CandideThe word potpourri could mean a collage of wonderful vegetables, meats and fish, or, for the French, it could be a rotting bowl of soup. Ah, those French! In the world of public policy, a potpourri of policies can be defined as several disparate good or bad ones or a mix of both.

Over the weekend, I read a number of expert blogs and articles. They provide a potpourri of interesting transportation fuel thoughts, some were real, some fanciful.

I want to briefly review a few of them because they highlight how difficult it is, and will be, to reach policy consensus concerning reducing oil dependency and how those who are trying have inestimable patience.

We win-maybe: Anthony Fensom’s “America: the next energy superpower?”

Fensom’s piece borrowed from BP’s recent analysis, indicating that unconventional sources of energy – shale gas, tight oil, heavy oil and biofuels – will transform the energy balance of the U.S. By 2030, increasing production and moderating demand will result in the U.S. being 99 percent self-sufficient in net energy; in 2005, it was only 70 percent self-sufficient. “President Obama’s call in his second inaugural address for action on climate change has also received assistance from the gas boom. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), natural gas-fired power plants produce around half as much carbon oxide emissions, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides and one percent as much sulfur oxide as coal-fired plants. In light of this, the New York Times reports that the EPA is planning tighter emission standards to force power generators to switch from coal to gas.”

I believe BP’s projection concerning tight oil is too high. Environmental issues and uncertain demand, combined with increased drilling costs and U.S. exports, will likely limit energy independence and generate lower, but continuing, energy dependence. I do agree that natural gas, if increasingly substituted for coal in power plants will reduce GHG by between 20-30 percent by 2020. If we are able to open up the restricted gasoline market to natural gas and methanol as well as other alternative transitional fuels, the positive GHG impact will be even higher.

We lose: Jared Anderson’s “Why has Saudi Arabia cut its oil output?” 

Late last year, AOL Energy reported that the Saudis had decided to cut back on pumping oil. It had been pumping from just under nearly 10 million barrels a day to 9.36 million in December. Writer Jared Anderson asks why. The conventional answer, which is in part true, is the lower seasonal demand in Saudi Arabia. But the nonconventional response, which is also in part true, is that the Saudis use oil revenue to fund economic and social welfare programs for their citizens. Recently, life hasn’t been easy in the Middle East and the Kingdom. However, through manipulating production volume and securing higher prices, the Saudis are, in effect, able to use increased oil revenues, when necessary, to avoid what it perceives as the political tension and disruption caused by the Arab Spring. If we pay, they are able to play! Not a good strategic definition of oil sustainability or independence.

We can’t just yet: Seth Borenstein’s “What holds energy tech back? The infernal battery”

The lithium ion battery got hit in the gut with the grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, caused by fires in its batteries. The U.S. has work to do concerning vehicular batteries. Borenstein states in his article, “As for the electric car industry, lithium ion batteries have proved to have two major drawbacks: They are costly and they do not allow automobiles to go far enough between rechargings.” Quoted in the article, scientist Vince Battaglia stated, “We’ve got to find the next big thing.” But very few experts know or can even guesstimate what the next best thing is. Is it to increase the safety, storage, efficiency, cost and effectiveness as well as miles traveled on a single charge of the lithium ion battery, or is it to depart from lithium ion and move toward lithium-air, lithium-sulfur, magnesium, sodium-ion or other chemicals and designs? Right now, it’s a horse race with slow horses because of the many difficult problems to be resolved by scientists and engineers. Jay Whitacre, Carnegie Mellon University materials science professor, indicated that, “If you crack it…it’ll (batteries) change the world.” Linked to natural gas fueled utilities for charges, (at least until solar and or wind are technologically and cost/price ready), once electric car problems are resolved and electric vehicles are mass produced at price points attracting a large market, they will make a dent in GHG emissions. But they won’t reduce emissions, really significantly, until existing cars-by far the majority of cars- are converted to alternative fuels or replaced someday by electric vehicles. Okay, we cannot look to battery power just yet to extensively reduce GHG emissions or oil dependency. Yet hope springs eternal. Dr. Pangloss in “Candide,” with great optimism, indicated, “Troubles [may be] (he said ‘are,’ I say ‘may be’) just the shadows in a beautiful picture.”

We might just try it, we may just like it: Ken Silverstein’s “All roads lead to natural gas-fueled cars and trucks”

I saw a brief piece on natural gas. Without many adjectives, it indicated that, “The tea leaves would tend to indicate that the transportation sector will increasingly fill up using natural gas: LNG is best with heavy duty trucks while compressed natural gas, or CNG, is (and, the article suggests, will be increasingly) used to power passenger vehicles and corporate fleets.” Lots of public and private sector initiatives seem to confirm the extended link between natural gas and vehicles. For example, the recently initiated bipartisan 22 state effort led by Gov. Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado and Gov. Fallin (R) of Oklahoma has committed Detroit to produce an affordable car for replacement autos in state fleets and the consumer. Similarly, Mayor Bloomberg (I) of New York and George Mitchell, developer from Texas, have joined together to fund a multiple state effort lead by the Environmental Defense Fund to respond and help solve fracking issues. The group has its parallel in many areas of the nation.

The nation should be able to develop a strategy to reduce dependency on oil that allows alternative transitional fuel choices along with gasoline and electric cars and let the market decide. Again, Dr. Pangloss has words of wisdom, “We live (he said ‘live,’ I say, ‘hopefully will soon live’) in the best of all possible worlds.”