Remember the relatively recent documentary, called the “Fog of War”? It provided former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara an opportunity to define, post facto, truths he perceived from the Vietnam War and to indicate feelings of remorse concerning his role in the conflict. The documentary helps viewers understand how war sometimes generates assumed facts, often clouded, simultaneously by simple and complex variables and by the perversity of purposeful lies we accept as truth or convince ourselves to believe as true. We want to believe, particularly when war is cast as right and wrong, good and evil, and to easily cast our ideology and sometimes values, as truth and fact.
I believe there is a fog of obscuration concerning the use of alternative fuels for automobiles that, up to now, has confused the dialogue concerning transportation fuel policy. Clearly, the debate over opening up the fuel market for automobiles to natural gas, ethanol, methanol, biofuels, battery powered cars is often subject more to assumed “facts” that, in reality, are not always facts. They are either honest mistakes or dishonest attempts at creating confusion concerning the negative impact of restrictions now governing the oil/gasoline market on the economy and the environment.
We need to break through or lessen the fog. In this context, let’s think about the direct use of natural gas in autos. Its opponents sometimes suggest as fact that natural gas will be too expensive because of increased engine costs. They seem to be half right. Yes, there are increased engine costs of about $10,000 compared to conventional internal combustion engines. However, often forgotten is the fact that natural gas will be much less expensive at the pump than gasoline. The key question is how long it will take consumers to recover the higher costs of vehicles. Studies vary, based on assumptions concerning mileage traveled, the gap between gasoline and natural gas prices and non-fuel costs related to operation. As previous Over a Barrel blogs indicated, the governors of 13 states, based on several independent studies, have placed their bet on the fact that switching their respective state’s car fleet to natural gas, over time, will result in net savings. I have seen the numbers. It seems like a reasonable bet; one, paraphrasing President Reagan, that Americans can trust and verify with proper monitoring.
Similarly, advocates of increased use of natural gas and its derivative methanol as a transitional fuel often are put down by some because of their stated “fact” that both fuels will be bad for the environment and the emission of greenhouse gases. But the facts are more nuanced and not as they state. Assuming natural gas becomes a transition fuel, its likely impact will result in lower, much lower, greenhouse emissions than oil-based gasoline. “Substituting gas or coal and oil is a significant way to reduce greenhouse forcing regardless of how long (within a feasible range) the substitution takes. For methane leakages of less than 1 percent of total consumption, replacing coal used in electricity and 50 percent of the oil used in transportation with natural gas (very feasible steps that could be driven by the low cost of methane alone with no government encouragement) would achieve up to 40 percent of the greenhouse warming reduction that could be achieved by transitioning immediately to low carbon energy sources such as wind, nuclear or solar,” stated L.M. Cathles, in a recent study. Except as energy source for power to power up battery-fueled cars, wind, nuclear and solar are not at present relevant transportation fuels and will not be in the near future.
EPA indicates that compared to traditional vehicles, CNG gas significantly reduces carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions a well as other toxic pollutants, including cancer-causing carcinogens.
According to most reputable independent researchers, methanol’s use as a transportation fuel has several environmental benefits. For example, while it generates more greenhouse emissions than natural gas, it generates less than gasoline. Further, methanol’s carbon footprint can be reduced by using carbon dioxide emissions through sequestration and current as well as soon-to-be-available technologies in the production process. From an environmental perspective, methanol is biodegradable, quickly reducing the impact of possible spills. Methanol is much less toxic and produces fewer pollutants, including particulates, than gasoline.
So as Walter Cronkite said, “that’s the way it is” and as Sergeant Jack Webb, of Dragnet fame, indicated, “all we know are the facts ma’am.” As we wait with baited breath for the next study, let me paraphrase (and you take to heart), the greatest resource and environmental expert of all time, Socrates, and close by saying that an unexamined oil and gas analysis, with weak methodology that asserts certainty re. facts concerning their impact on global warming and the environment are probably not worth having and is probably no more useful than an easily or soon to be forgotten speech at lunch.