Oil still a major source of revenue for terrorist groups

Oil prices continue to plummet, owing to an oversize inventory and the prospect of still more crude coming onto the market from Iran. But that doesn’t seem to have turned off the spigot of revenue flowing to extremist groups.

At one point last year, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) was believed to be raking in $3 million a day in black-market sales of oil the group pumped from territories in Syria and Iran it took over during a swift campaign. ISIS once controlled several Iraqi oil fields, but thanks to a counteroffensive involving U.S. airstrikes and an American-backed campaign by the Iraqi security forces, the group now has only one, according to Agence France-Presse.

But ISIS’s oil operations have only been scaled back, not thoroughly halted. According to a story in The New York Times this week, ISIS has transformed from a simply bloodthirsty terrorist group, the successor to al-Qaeda, into a fully functioning government. It has a complex economy that relies not just on stolen oil, but other revenue sources, including kidnapping, extortion and an assortment of taxes and levies.

That complexity is evident in the way ISIS pumps and transports oil: Based on a BBC2 program called “The World’s Richest Terror Army” that aired this spring, ISIS even sells the oil it gets from fields in eastern Syria back to the Syrian government, even though the group is a sworn enemy of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

ISIS sells some of its oil to the people it governs — some 8 million in the territory it controls — and smuggles more of it across the Turkish border. According to a story in U.K.’s Independent, around the time of the BBC special in April:

A Syrian source involved in oil smuggling for Isis explained how oil brought in one of the group’s biggest streams of revenue. “Isis controls the oil wells in our region of Deir Ezzor, which is rich in oil,” he said. “My family, friends and members of my tribe by oil from Isis and smuggle it to the refineries and then to civilian markets.” The US treasury estimates Isis is still earning $2 million a week by smuggling oil in spite of a sustained bombing campaign by the US-led coalition.

The documentary reveals that militants have developed ways of pumping oil hundreds of metres across the border and floating it in barrels down rivers in order to export it into areas not held by Isis.

ISIS is far from the only extremist group that finances its activities through oil, one way or another. According to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, Saudi Arabia — a U.S. ally that also hates ISIS — is home to many financiers of global terrorism:

This Gulf monarchy is a … state in which no taxes are imposed on the population. Instead, Saudis have a religious tax, the zakat, requiring all Muslims to give at least 2.5 percent of their income to charities. Many of the charities are truly dedicated to good causes, but others merely serve as money laundering and terrorist financing apparatuses. While many Saudis contribute to those charities in good faith believing their money goes toward good causes, others know full well the terrorist purposes to which their money will be funneled.

Oil not only underwrites terrorism, it gives oil-exporting nations in the Persian Gulf an outsize influence on the world stage. The United States and other Western countries devote inordinate amounts of resources and attention to dealing with the Middle East and its many internecine struggles, at the expense of other parts of the world.

Also, the task of defending the flow of oil from the region routinely falls to the United States, and using less oil would absolve us of the need to send in troops and keep up military bases to protect supply routes.

“As long as we keep buying oil from the Middle East, our enemies can continue to fund terrorism,” oil and gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens wrote in TIME earlier this month. “For too long we have spent the lives and limbs of thousands of young men and women fighting in the Middle East, and we still bear most of the cost of protecting the about 17 million barrels that flow through the Strait of Hormuz every day even though only about 10% of that oil comes to us.”

Some say we can drill our way to oil independence, but the reality is, the U.S. still needs about 19 million barrels of oil a day to function, and the “shale revolution” only restored U.S. production to a peak of about 10 million barrels. The rest has to come from somewhere.

If the U.S. used more alternative fuels for vehicles, instead of primarily oil-based gasoline and diesel, we could reduce our dependence on oil — and shrink the influence of the countries that supply it.

To learn more about the connections between oil and terrorism, visit our National Security page.

And here’s the BBC’s “World’s Richest Terror Army” doc:

tanker-Persian Gulf

U.S. answer to Mideast violence must include reducing oil dependence

Over the last month, the following incidents have taken place in the Middle East:

  • On July 4, a car bomb exploded in a crowded market in Baghdad, killing nine people and injuring 24. Although no one took credit for the attack, suspicion fell on ISIS, which had been responsible for previous bombings in Baghdad. The incident was described as one of the deadliest in recent memory.
  • On July 12, a series of car bombs and suicide attacks killed 35 people and injured more than 100, mainly in Shi’ite neighborhoods. In the deadliest attack in the northern Shaab neighborhood, a car bomb exploded and then a suicide bomber detonated another explosion once police and crowds had gathered at the scene of the first explosion. Once again, ISIS was believed to be responsible. The incident was described as the deadliest in recent memory.
  • On July 18, a truck loaded with explosives was detonated in a busy Baghdad market, killing 120 and wounding 130. The explosion occurred while the local populace was celebrating the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the monthlong Ramadan holiday. The explosion destroyed 50 stores and 75 cars, and leveled two buildings. It was said to be the worst incident so far this year.
  • A month earlier, terrorists struck in France, Tunisia and Kuwait on the same day, June 26. No one knows whether the events were coordinated or just occurred by coincidence. In Kuwait, an explosion at a Shi’ite mosque killed 25 worshippers and destroyed the mosque. In Tunisia on the same day, a lone gunman wielding an assault rifle killed 38 people, mostly tourists, on a public beach. ISIS claimed credit for both incidents, although it did not say they had been coordinated. In France, a lone terrorist made it past security at an American-owned chemical factory, set off a gas explosion, and then decapitated a company executive and posted his head on a gate next to two Muslim flags. At the beginning of the holy month, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a spokesman for ISIS, had exhorted his followers: “Muslims, embark and hasten toward jihad. O mujahedeen everywhere, rush and go to make Ramadan a month of disasters for the infidels.”

Many American think all this violence started with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In fact, it’s been going on since the 7th century. The original argument began with the succession to Muhammad’s leadership when he died in 632 A.D. There were two claimants to his legacy. The first was the Umayyad Caliph, made up of the followers of Muhammad’s entourage in Medina and Baghdad. The second was Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, who claimed to be his legitimate heir.

In 680, Caliph Muawiyah I of the Umayyad died and tried to pass his rule on to his son, Yazid, despite a written agreement with Hussein to honor his claim to the throne. Yazid demanded that Hussein acknowledge his rulership, and Hussein refused. Instead, he mounted an army and headed toward Baghdad, where Yazid was seated. During the march, however, Hussein’s supporters dwindled, and when he arrived at Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad, he only had 75 followers left. There he was met by an army of 1,000 men sent forth from Baghdad by Yazid.

Hussein deliberated for a week before deciding once again to refuse Yazid’s leadership and join him in battle. By this time, Yazid’s army had swelled to 6,000. Hussein went to battle with about 75. Hussein’s army was slaughtered, and he was himself beheaded and his head sent to Baghdad. Hussein’s followers set up a rival caliphate in Medina, however, and the schism between the Sunni Umayyad Empire and the rival Shi’ites began and continues to this day.

The Shi’ia, who eventually established their dominion in Persia (Iran), still celebrate the holiday of Ashura, in which they flagellate themselves because they were not there to help Hussein at the Battle of Karbala. As one scholar has put it, the Shi’ia are “born martyrs.” Iran is the one country you can imagine starting a nuclear war, even if it meant nuclear suicide.

All this would be only of antiquarian interest if it were not that more than half the world’s oil comes from the Persian Gulf. And all that oil is continually riding on the chance that the two sides will not disrupt the flow of oil — or destroy whole oil fields — in their endless, ongoing battles. The stakes are only getting higher. Last week, ISIS rebels in the Sinai Peninsula claimed to have hit an Egyptian naval vessel with a guided missile offshore in the Mediterranean. How long will it be before rival factions are firing guided missiles at oil tankers sailing through the Strait of Hormuz?

It is impossible to choose sides in the Middle East. For instance, ever since the 9/11 attack, the United States has considered al-Qaeda to be its prime adversary in the world. Yet last week, Americans found themselves on the same side as al-Qaeda in backing Saudi Arabia’s efforts to expel the Shi’ite Houthi rebels from Yemen. Yet at the very same time, we were negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran that is widely perceived as supporting the Shi’ite faction in the Middle East, in defiance of Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have said they may seek a nuclear weapon themselves if Iran is able to secure one. Imagine a nuclear-armed Iran and Saudi Arabia facing each other across the Persian Gulf while our oil tankers try to escape into the Indian Ocean.

The only reasonable strategy here is to reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil. We still import 20 percent of our oil from the Persian Gulf, with 13 percent coming from Saudi Arabia. This is down from over 30 percent a decade ago, but we can still go further. America’s amazing improvement in oil production has played a part, but we are still dependent on oil for 80 percent of our transport sector. Substituting other kinds of fuels to power our vehicles is the obvious answer.

The Middle East tinder box isn’t going to go away during our lifetime. The obvious solution is to disassociate ourselves as much as possible. Freeing ourselves from our dependence on oil for our transport sector is the first and foremost step forward.

What does Shakespeare have to do with California gas prices?

ExxonWilliam Shakespeare once said that there are “occasions and causes why and wherefore in all things” (Henry V). I would edit the Bard of Avon and add, except when trying to readily understand recent oil price increases in California.

Put two analysts in a room and ask about the cost of oil and you likely will get three or more answers. Many parents send their kids to college to study the hard economic sciences only to find out that their hopes and dreams are often dashed by ideology or weak methodology — sometimes both. Conservative economists argue it’s the fault of unnecessary environmental regulations and taxes. Liberals respond that high prices result from oil speculators and price management by oil companies. Non-ideologues merely respond with, “I don’t know,” and then give a lecture on probable causes, most times, without empirical data related to correlation or causation to back up their statements.

We now have lots of conflicting facts and observations without any real strategic comprehension of what both mean. For example, gasoline prices in California have increased relatively fast and by a large amount, while the cost of oil per barrel has stabilized or even decreased. Daily oil prices per barrel fluctuate, but the variations have been relatively small, and oil costs remain quite low.

The per-gallon price of gasoline in the state has surpassed $5 per gallon in a few stations and is well over $4 per gallon at many other stations. Consumers are dazed, depressed and angered by the severity and quickness of price increases. (Manic depression has likely set in, in light of recent exposure to the previously lower prices at the pump. The New York blackout generated more babies, and the gas crisis of 2015 will probably lead to more visits to psychiatrists.)

Guesstimates of the why and wherefore of price increases reflect more the skills of a carnival barker than that of a skilled economist. Step right up and name your selection of one or more factors leading to the significant and comparatively high gas price increase in California, compared with other states. California has earned the right to claim the title of most expensive regular gas in the nation. Maybe, like in the early ’60s, the Golden State can install an electronic sign celebrating its achievement on the Bay Bridge, in the “left my heart” city of San Francisco, as it did when its population surpassed New York’s. Of course, I am just kidding. It’s not a feat the state is proud about.

Forget the ideologues for a minute! What are respected observers saying about the whys and wherefores of the severe spike in prices in California?

Many journalists writing for newspapers (happily, we still have print!), in and out of California, grant causal status to increases in the state and federal gas taxes, now adding nearly 70 cents to the price of a gallon of gas. Approximately, 10 cents of the total in most stations reflects a new carbon tax on wholesalers.

Others suggest that frequent breakdowns and poor conditions of refineries, as well as recent fires at refineries in California, add up to production and inventory limits. These assertions make some sense, given the marginal room in existing refineries to build more capacity and production.

Some political leaders point to the fact that there are only a relatively small number of refineries in the state. Added to this fact, some say, is the almost oligopolistic control of refineries by two major oil companies. Did you know that Chevron and Tesoro together control nearly 60 percent of California’s refinery capacity? Some oil analysts say the percentage is much, much higher than that — up to 80-90 percent.

Clearly, there is a negative impact on prices generated by a lack of real competition. Significantly, many observers from in and out of the state have warned about the possibility of managed prices in light of the structure of the industry (and its secrecy). In a similar vein, investor speculation on oil has been raised as a variable leading to higher costs at the pump by Sen. Diane Feinstein and others. A few years ago, Sen. Feinstein sought hearings on possible skullduggery. Interestingly, despite assumed inventory shortages, refineries exported nearly 3.5 million gallons a day just before recent major gas-price increases. Gasoline is traded on a global market governed by profits and price disparities — not social welfare.

Coming around third and heading home! Both the costs associated with the state’s requirements to shift from one blend of fuel used in the winter to another in summer, combined with the apparent costs of California’s baseline environmental-blend requirements, are seen by some experts as factors generating higher gas costs and negligible imports from other states.

Blend and seasonal shift mandates normally do increase the costs of gasoline. They probably create extra costs, particularly when the inventory is short, as it is now.

California exports ideas, fashion and lots of other things. But generally, when shortages occur — real or not — the state must import gasoline. It is isolated from refineries in the U.S. and foreign refineries. California must rely on ships, trains and trucks to secure imported oil. No pipelines exist that move gas beyond the boundaries of the state or into the state. No swimmers are strong enough to carry oil on their backs. Pre-spike low prices and blend requirements appear to have muted the incentive to send gasoline to California among would-be exporters.

Surprisingly, there is no consensus-based factor analysis determining the various causes and their relative impact on the upward spike of gas prices. If I had to place a bet on the major causes, I would bet on the likelihood of managed prices and investor speculation, current limited statewide refining and pipeline capacity, and absence of storage capacity.

Are there antidotes to California’s problems? Maybe, but not one that can or will be available tomorrow! But they could be available relatively soon, with political courage and changes in consumer behavior and perceptions. Increased competition at the pump from alternative fuels, including ethanol, electric vehicles, natural gas and, perhaps in the near future, fuel-cell technology and a range of biofuels, would generate more stability and lower prices in the gas market. Public support for applied research into alternative fuels, particularly options that currently aren’t ready for prime market time, is also necessary. Congressional willingness to pass open-fuels legislation, converting gas stations to, in effect, fuel stations, would help.

The EPA’s willingness to lessen the expenses and speed up the process associated with certification of kits able to convert internal combustion engines to run on E85, and to test and increase the number and classes of potentially convertible flex-fuel vehicles, would create demand and supply. Detroit’s willingness to increase production of new flex-fuel vehicles would provide a real “fuel additive.”

William Shakespeare’s whys and wherefores could become a happening? If so, California Dreaming (The Mamas & the Papas) about lower fuel costs and environmentally friendly fuel could become a reality. Oh, and I just paid $4.33 for regular gas at my friendly gas station!

E85 nozzle_2

Some drivers are blending their own ‘premium fuel’

This week I wrote about the sudden, inexplicable rise in gasoline prices in Southern California, and much lower prices for E85 ethanol blend is.

E85 is meant to be used in flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs), or vehicles that have been converted from gasoline-only to run on higher ethanol blends. But we’ve been hearing from drivers around the country who use E85 even if they don’t have an FFV. Although E85 isn’t approved for these vehicles, some consumers, enticed by the many benefits of E85 — the price point, the fact that it’s cleaner and made in America — are happily using it anyway.

Older cars might not be able to use higher ethanol blends (what we call regular gas is E10, meaning it has up to 10 percent ethanol) and run efficiently. There’s a potential for damage to engine parts of some older cars. But some pro-ethanol drivers, especially those who own newer vehicles with sophisticated on-board diagnostics (OBD) computers, have reported no problems.

“Both of my gasoline vehicles use E85 and perform flawlessly,” Jeffrey Matthews of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, wrote in a comment to a lively FFF Facebook post this week. “And both pass the annual emissions test with flying colors.”

Cheryl Near, who with her husband Phil co-owns two fueling stations in Wichita, Kansas, that sell both E10 and E85, says some customers fill up with E85, regardless of their make and model.

“We had a lady that had an older model car, before 2001,” Near, who also appears with Phil in our documentary film PUMP, wrote on Facebook. “I went out to ask her if she knew that she was filling with E85. She told me that she did and that she loves it. Her son logged her mileage for her and they found that her car got BETTER gas mileage on E85. Our pumps are clearly marked so if I see somebody filling with E85 in a non FFV, I will go talk to them. They all know and choose to fill with E85.”

Of course, not everyone has easy access to a station that sells E85. (There are 2,639 such stations in the U.S., according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center’s locator, which you can access through our Fuels 101 section.) There needs to be more stations, that’s one of our goals as a foundation.

Even among those who can find the fuel, what if you wanted to use more ethanol than just puny E10, but weren’t prepared to go full bore with E85?

Some drivers “splash blend” E10 with E85; the sensors in the OBD can determine the properties of the fuel in the tank and adjust the oxygen intake accordingly.

“I use 30-50% E85 no problem,” Jason Fritsche on Facebook.

John Brackett, an automotive engineer who also appears in PUMP, wrote in an e-mail: “Since most E85 actually tests as E70-75, and all other gasoline is E10, the blend is usually about E35-E40. This is a great way to make your own ‘premium fuel.’ ”

E85 is technically any concentration between 51 percent and 83 percent ethanol, depending on the season and the part of the country where it’s sold. Because ethanol has less energy content than pure gasoline, drivers might see anywhere from a 15 to 35 percent dropoff in mpg using E85 compared with E10. Which means you’d have to fill up an extra time every couple weeks.

To achieve a certain target level of ethanol blend, you can use one of several smartphone apps to perform the calculations: E85 Mix Calculator is available on both iTunes and the Google Play store for Android. Another is E85 Calculator on Google.

Ethanol haters beware: Marc Rauch is ready for you

Marc J. Rauch likes to argue. But his best attribute is that he’s patient, willing to wait out an opponent in a debate and lay out the facts to support his position. No matter how long, and how many back-and-forth volleys, it takes.


Are you talkin’ to me? OK, let’s talk!

This devotion prompted Rauch, the executive vice president and co-publisher of The Auto Channel website, to create a blog on his site called the Ethanol Chronicles. Its purpose is to counter misinformation about ethanol.

It’s a painstaking task, because the myths about the fuel keep sprouting up, like weeds in a driveway: Ethanol will hurt my car’s engine; the fermentation process produces more greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline; it makes my mpg fall of a cliff; corn-based ethanol takes food out of the mouths of starving babies; corn farmers get rich off subsidies from the government.

The Brooklyn-born Rauch takes these fact-free assertions one by one and eviscerates them.

Take the latest entry on the Ethanol Chronicles, from Tuesday: The submission from someone called “Erocker” is actually 17 separate myths.

Rauch begins his reply with: “All of your points are either outright lies, gross exaggerations, or just plain irrelevant. I presume you found this list somewhere and have merely re-posted it.”

What follows is a lively “Crossfire”-style point and counterpoint that ends with Rauch performing a victorious mic-drop. Many such conversations involving Rauch end this way.

In the first entry on the blog, from July 2, Rauch responds to a laundry list of the usual ethanol jabs, including the subsidy issue, from someone called “Lance.”

It is true that American farmers are among the top beneficiaries of ethanol production; and this is true whether the ethanol is made from corn, sugar, beets, or any other crop. But the thing I always say is that I would rather have my fuel money go to support American farmers than to foreign regimes and terrorist countries. If we’re talking about doing what is best for the U.S., the best is to keep as much money as possible here and to employ and many Americans as possible.

Also, remember that no American service men and women have ever died defending domestic ethanol production and distribution. Depending upon which wars you can subscribe to be oil related it could be said that more than a million Americans have died defending Arab oil countries and Russia.

I welcome any and all replies you would like to make Lance. I only hope you will carefully read what I just wrote and avoid inventing facts or taking my words out of context. If need be, please read the sentences two or three times to get the context correct.

You got served, Lance. See you next time.

Rauch is well-armed with facts and research on ethanol and other biofuels, which makes his job easier.

“Many of the seemingly strongest criticisms of ethanol can be effectively dismissed with the simplest application of common sense and rudimentary mechanical experience,” he told me by e-mail. “It’s as if the critics forgot, or didn’t know, that the problems inherent in internal combustion engines exist with or without the presence of ethanol.”

At the end of the blog — which runs as one long, extended conversation, like an acrimonious cocktail party — Rauch writes, “Check back often for updates to the Ethanol Chronicles blog.”

We will indeed. And we don’t mind the bluster, because made-up facts about ethanol need to be countered, and quickly. This is too important an issue to let falsehoods spread without challenge.

For more of the wit and wisdom of Marc Rauch, check out PUMP the Movie, in which Rauch serves up his usual well-reasoned mots bon about ethanol, national security and other issues that take on the oil monopoly.




7 ways our oil addiction is hurting the economy

We spend billions of dollars every year on oil that could be spent on cleaner, cheaper, American-made fuels. The impact of this addiction can be seen throughout our economy in a cycle of job and money loss:

  1. AMERICAN JOBS: When oil prices fluctuate, all levels of the economy are affected. When businesses have to pay more to ship their products because of a spike in fuel prices, they have to cut those costs elsewhere, leading to job loss.
  2. RECESSIONS: Of the 11 recessions in the U.S. since World War II, 10 were preceded by an oil-price spike. By breaking our oil addiction and investing in fuel choice, we can break this cycle.
  3. RELIANCE ON IMPORTS: The U.S. imports about 40 percent of its oil, sending money abroad that could have helped our economy at home. Building up the domestic infrastructure of alternative fuels would spur economic activity, instead of siphoning away billions that flow overseas.
  4. HOUSING: High gas prices hit close to home. As gas prices rise, the value of homes farther away from big cities, according to economist Joe Cortright, begin to devalue as the cost of commuting rises.
  5. WALL STREET: In July 2008, the price of oil hit $147 a barrel, and two months later Wall Street followed suit. In one day, the DOW Jones Industrial Average fell 777 points, ushering in the financial crisis.
  6. FLUCTUATING PRICES:  When gas and oil costs go up, the cost of other products follows. Suddenly, consumers have to pay more for everyday goods that require gasoline or diesel to be shipped. And when we’re spending more on our everyday necessities, we’re spending less on other things we need — delaying big purchases.
  7. LIMITED CHOICES: With no other options (unless you’re driving a flex-fuel or an electric car), the fluctuation of gas prices leaves the average consumer a sitting duck — unable to pay the price, but unable to purchase any other fuel. That’s why bringing fuel choice to the pump is so important.

The U.S. is at the mercy of oil companies as prices fluctuate, impacting our economy, including day-to-day prices for consumers and the overall job market. It’s time to break this cycle of dependence by bringing fuel choice to the pump.

Join the movement:


California drivers furious at gas prices. Here’s a solution

Southern Californians are in a state of shock. Again. Prices for regular unleaded gasoline shot up literally overnight late last week, and they continued climbing this week: According to, the average price for 87-octane gas in the Los Angeles area was $4.155 Monday, up 20 cents from Sunday, and 60 cents over the past week.

At some stations, the disparity was even more of a jolt: At a 76 station in Sherman Oaks, the price went from $3.99 to $4.59 in minutes last Friday; at a Mobil in North Hollywood, it was $4.99. The national average was only $2.78, a benchmark tied to the relatively low price of oil, which stood at $57.85 Monday.

It’s a familiar ritual in SoCal: Prices jump for no apparent reason (at least this time no one can say they weren’t warned); oil companies and refineries offer rationalizations, based on byzantine economic factors; often people in power demand answers, possibly even scheduling some kind of inquiry or legislative hearings; and then prices float back down again, never as quickly as they rose, and consumers forget about what the heck just happened.

The latest explanation, as parroted by many among the local media, is this: There’s a shortage of gasoline inventory, and a drop in fuel imports coming from overseas. California has a cleaner standard for gas than the rest of the country. And by the way, it’s summer, etc. Allison Mac, an analyst for GasBuddy, also said the explosion and fire at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance back in February has had a lingering effect: “That is still down,” she told NBC4, adding that the refinery accounts for about 10 percent of SoCal’s gasoline supply.

Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based group Consumer Watchdog, suspects price-fixing. “Make no mistake, this is all about pure profits for the oil companies,” he told KTLA-TV. “Crude oil costs are like under $60 a barrel right now. We have four refineries that control 78 percent of the market. All they have to do is pull a couple ships coming in, and the prices go up 60 cents in a night.”

Consumers have a right to be outraged. But many of them are strangely resigned, insisting they have no control over the gyrations of the gas market.

“We have to pay for gas. I mean, like, we’ve got to get around. There’s no getting around it.” — Jaclyn Williams, Van Nuys, to ABC7.

“What are you gonna do? I mean, you gotta … I actually bike to work a couple times a week, so I try to balance it out like that. –- Jason Bielawski, Los Angeles, to Channel 5.

“The price went up real bad. Whose fault is it? Let’s blame somebody,” he joked. “What can we do?” — Frank Zamarripa, Santa Ana, to the Orange County Register.

Drivers don’t have to just take it, and they don’t have to start riding a bike in L.A. traffic (if you do, use a scuba tank). All they have to do is start using E85, which is up to 85 percent ethanol (a cleaner-burning, cheaper fuel) and 15 percent gasoline (the dirtier, crazy-expensive fuel).

E85 nozzle2You might be driving one of the more than 17 million flex-fuel vehicles, which can take any ethanol blend up to E85. Others who don’t own an FFV are filling up on E85 anyway, owing to the attractive price point. There are more than 2,600 stations that sell E85, including many in Southern California. I dropped in at the G&M station at Beach Boulevard and Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach. The station has two Propel Fuels pumps that dispense E85 (Propel the company featured in PUMP the Movie), and the best attribute of ethanol is right there on the marquee:

$2.99. That’s the price G&M was charging Monday for E85, a full dollar less than 87 unleaded.

Despite that differential, the green Propel island was getting no love from customers. Someone had just been there, a truck, it seemed, because it had just pumped 24.7 gallons for $74.00. The other drivers lined up to pay the exorbitant price for gasoline.

They included Janet Martin, a web designer from Laguna Beach, who filled up her Toyota Camry. “I think it’s greed,” she said when asked her theory of high prices. “It seems to get more expensive when it’s tourist season or summer vacation, where people are using their cars more often.

“It’s frustrating, but we have no control. It’s the people up on top, it’s the people who have the money, it’s the people that are in charge of the corporations …”

As long as oil remains our predominant fuel choice, American consumers will continue to be vulnerable to market gyrations. Prices go up and down, sometimes based purely on market forces, other times based on events in the Middle East, other times still based on not much at all. As former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister says: “We will never get past the volatility of oil until we get to alternatives to oil.”

Californians should know this better than anyone by now, and they should be first in line to demand alternatives. Learn more about what you can do at our Take Action page.


Drive healthy: Keep windows rolled up, hit the recirculate button

If you see someone driving a convertible with the top down on the freeway this summer, you might shout a question at them above the roar of traffic: How’s your health insurance policy?

Driving on congested roadways is unhealthy for all of us, but especially for those who fail to maintain a strong barrier between the cabin and the many toxic emissions spewing out of everyone’s vehicles. The best way to keep air pollution out is to keep the roof on, the windows rolled up, and push that “recirculate” button on the vent control panel.

“If you’re concerned about trying to reduce your exposure, which probably anyone in L.A. who drives very much at all should, it’s not good to have your windows rolled down,” said Scott Fruin, an assistant professor at the University of California’s Keck School of Medicine. “The one exception might be if you have a really old car and it’s just too hot, you don’t have AC or something. But I would say in general, health-wise it’s much better to have your windows rolled up and on recirculate, as much as you can do it.”

Two years ago, Fruin and his USC colleague, research assistant Neelakshi Hudda, published a study in Environmental Science & Technology, showing that using the recirculate button — the one that usually has the round arrow inside it — can reduce the driver’s level of exposure to outside air pollution to 20 percent of on-road levels.

The researchers used a mobile testing vehicle to measure the contaminants coming from tailpipes on some of SoCal’s busiest freeways and other busy roads. The study mostly covered exposure to particulate matter (also called soot), and ultra-fine particles. These are molecules so small that they can actually enter the bloodstream and interrupt the function of individual cells.

Data collected by the team since then has shown the benefits of air recirculation for larger particles, including PM2.5, so named because they’re 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

Of all the tiny pollutants, the science on PM2.5 is the strongest, Fruin said, because it’s easier for instruments to detect.

“With that science, they found a lot of relationships to cardiovascular disease and premature mortality, so that’s what you see in the media now that’s killing 7 or 8 million people worldwide every year, especially in the developing-country cities.”

Air quality isn’t just an issue in developing nations, however: According to the American Lung Association’s 2015 State of the Air report, more than 4 in 10 Americans live in counties where the air is unhealthy to breathe. Vehicle emissions account for about half the air pollution in the United States, and the problem is clearly much worse in urban areas than rural ones.

One of the solutions Fuel Freedom is fighting for is for the increased availability of cheaper, cleaner transportation fuels like ethanol and methanol at the pump, so consumers can have a choice besides only gasoline. Wider adoption of those alternative fuels would reduce the level of toxic compounds being released into the air.

Fruin and his team are quick to note that using the recirculate button for prolonged periods, especially if there’s more than one person in the car, can make the air inside stuffy, owing to the increased level of carbon dioxide exhaled by the occupants. Every 10 or 15 minutes, allow outside air — we won’t call it “fresh” air — to come in.

Of course, filtering out pollution only really takes care of the particles. It can’t stop gaseous toxics from coming in.

“So all the pollutants like nitrogen dioxide or some of the volatile organic carbons like benzene, you’re gonna get a high exposure pretty much no matter what in a car, especially on freeways or in congestion, unless you have a very specialized filter system. … So it’s still important for people to drive less.”

Older cars tend to be more “leaky” with outside air than newer ones. A good rule of thumb to remember — and this goes for houses that are near busy roadways as well — is that if you can hear the noise of traffic, those emissions probably are coming in as well.

“If traffic is loud, you should try to make your home quieter, because that seals it up,” he said. “The same with cars: If you get a lot of traffic noise while you’re driving, chances are your car is leakier.”


United hopes third try with biofuels is the charm

United Airlines took a giant step toward cutting its reliance on foreign fuels last week when it made $30 million investment in Fulcrum BioEnergy, one of the leading manufacturers of aviation biofuels made from municipal waste.

The move is being touted as a step toward reducing carbon emissions, although there are some doubts about its impact in that respect. But reducing consumption of jet fuel certainly will have a significant effect in reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

Last year, United’s fleet of aircraft consumed 3.9 billion gallons of jet fuel, at a cost of $11.6 billion. Fuel costs represent 40 percent of any airline’s total expenses, and any move that cuts into that expense would be huge. Jet fuel currently sells for $2.11 a gallon, whereas Fulcrum says it can provide biofuel for less than $1 per gallon. More than 12 percent of our oil goes to making jet fuel.

Fulcrum has developed and certified a technology that can turn municipal waste, like household trash, into a sustainable aviation fuel that can be blended with existing jet fuel. The company is currently building a refinery called the Sierra BioFuels Plant near Reno that is scheduled to begin operation during the third quarter of 2017. The company also has plans for five more refineries around the country.

Biofuels are having some difficulty penetrating the automobile market, for a variety of reasons. But they’re perfectly suited for airlines. For one, they are a “drop-in” fuel that can be substituted for jet fuel without any changes. It will not require a whole new national infrastructure.

Second, airlines do most of their fueling at centralized locations. This eliminates a lot of difficulty in transporting and distributing the fuel. United, for instance, can fuel a very high percentage of its flights from its hub in Los Angeles.

Third, with jet biofuel there’s no risk of hitting the “blend wall” that supposedly limits ethanol to 10 percent of the gasoline mix. United says it will begin using Fulcrum’s fuel in 30 percent of its fuel mix for the first two weeks of flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco this summer. After that, the biofuels will be mixed in with its entire fuel stock.

United’s deal with Fulcrum is just one of several recent efforts by airlines to get into the biofuels business. Alaska Airlines aims to use biofuels at one of its airports by 2020. Southwest Airlines announced last year it would purchase 3 million gallons of jet fuel made from wood residues and produced by Red Rock Biofuels. And last year British Airways joined with Solena Fuels to build a biofuel refinery near London’s Heathrow Airport for completion by 2017.

United is on its third venture into the field. In 2009 the company made an unsuccessful attempt to introduce jet fuel manufactured from algae. Then in 2013 it agreed to buy 15 million gallons over three years from California-based AltAir Fuels, which makes biofuels out of inedible natural oils and agricultural waste. United is expecting the first 5 million gallons of Fulcrum fuel to be delivered to its LAX hub this summer.

The decision comes at a good time for the airlines, because the Environmental Protection Agency is starting to make noise about regulating the emissions of jet planes. Jet planes account for only 3 percent of our carbon emissions, but the number is growing rapidly. The Obama administration is proposing to set limits for airliner emissions. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, is also expected to complete its own deliberations on setting standards to limit airline emissions by next February.

Fulcrum claims its technology will reduce the airlines’ carbon emissions by 80 percent, but this is based on dubious math that says carbon emissions count for zero if they do not come from fossil fuels. This premise has been challenged by a growing number of scientists who say that the whole logic of biofuels is flawed. Professor Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University has become a gadfly to the industry, arguing that if a forest is cut for biofuels consumption, it will be 90 years before this carbon can be replaced by new growth. A group of 78 scientists recently sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy warning against the new EPA policy of encouraging the substitution of wood for coal. They said there would be no savings in carbon emissions.

The same logic applies, to some degree, to the use of municipal waste for biofuels. If the waste remained in landfills, it would be stored and not feeding its carbon content to the atmosphere. Therefore, it doesn’t make much difference if they are substituted for fossil fuels – the carbon output is the same. There is some benefit to using it, however, since some carbon from municipal waste ends up escaping from landfills as methane, and many facilities are required to capture it.

As far as gaining an advantage in cutting the level of foreign fuel imports, however, there is no question that biofuels can substitute for jet fuel on a 1-to-1 basis. Airlines are at a disadvantage in that they cannot be powered by electrification or natural gas, as is starting to occur in the automotive sector. Therefore, the amount of municipal waste-based fuel that can be substituted for oil-based jet fuel will be significant. And after all, the nation is certainly not going to run out of household trash.

(Photo from


Four reasons why fuel choice is good for the environment

There’s a lot to love about fuel choice — lower gas prices, reduced dependence on foreign oil, and of course helping the environment. That’s right: Bringing competition to the pump isn’t just good for your wallet, it’s good for your planet.  When you support fuel choice you’re helping make a cleaner world. Here’s how:

  1. AIR POLLUTION: It’s the most important thing we do every day, and we do it thousands of times a day without even thinking about it. Breathing. Yet for 44 percent of the nation, according to the American Lung Association, breathing isn’t simple. These 44 percent live in areas where the air quality is dangerous. Where every breath brings toxins like hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Where do those toxins come from? Mostly, from dirty transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel.
  2. DANGEROUS TRANSPORTATION: The increased oil production in the United States in recent years has put more pressure on the U.S. rail system to move around all that oil, and that has led to a string of derailments and spills that have polluted groundwater and threatened wildlife. Between 1975 and 2012, 800,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled in accidents in the U.S. In 2013, 1.15 million gallons were spilled. In 2014, another 57,000 gallons were spilled from a record 141 “unintentional releases,” which also caused $5 million in damage. By displacing some oil and using more ethanol, the risk would come down considerably, since the fuel is less volatile than petroleum and dissipates quickly in water.
  3. CLIMATE CHANGE: The average American car releases about 6 tons of carbon dioxide into the environment every year, and oil is responsible for 43 percent of the fuel-related CO2 emissions in the United States. These emissions inflict great harm on the climate. Imagine how much cleaner our environment could be if we added more fuels like ethanol and methanol into the market. Embracing fuel choice will allow consumers to have access to cleaner fuels, while decreasing our carbon footprint.
  4. OIL SPILLS: Our oil addiction has hurt more than our wallets – it’s hurt our environment. Oil spills, like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the Santa Barbara pipeline spill in May, devastate wildlife and ruin livelihoods. Breaking our oil addiction and ushering in an era of fuel choice will reduce demand for oil, and the potential threat of leaks and spills.

There are many ways to clean up the planet, but opening the market to cleaner types of fuel is too important to ignore. Want to help us make fuel choice happen? Together, we can move toward fuel choice and a cleaner environment: Join the movement today by visiting: