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Utah governor: Alt-fuels have to stand on their own

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert believes in an “all of the above” approach to energy. That means renewable fuels have to stand on their own merits and compete against established transportation fuels like oil and natural gas.

“We don’t think government should pick winners and losers; we think consumers should pick winners and losers,” Herbert said Thursday at the fourth annual Governor’s Utah Energy Development Summit in Salt Lake City. “The competition between the greener sources of energy and the traditional sources of energy are acute and demanding. What I see is, because of the competition between the various sources of energy, those that are greener and cleaner are having to find ways to compete and be economic.”

That also means that there’s pressure on the oil and gas industry, too, to get cleaner. Herbert, a Republican, said energy must achieve three objectives: sustainability, affordability and less dirty.

“There is a raised sensitivity in our society to make sure we’re responsible stewards of our home, the Earth.”

Although he announced no new initiatives for cleaner energy, he touted a new state report showing the strong impact the energy sector has on the state economy. Oil, natural gas, coal and other natural resources contribute $21 billion a year in activity for the state, the report said.

Herbert said the biggest challenge he faces is how to make sure there’s sufficient infrastructure, including enough energy — coal and natural gas for electricity generation, cost-effective gasoline and diesel for drivers — to meet the demands of a growing state.

“If anything keeps me awake at night, it’s, ‘How can I handle the challenges of growth? Well, energy is a big part of that also. Part of the challenge we have is planning and anticipating for the growth pressures that surely are going to happen, whether we like it or not. I actually think growth is a healthy thing.”

Later, during an onstage discussion with Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Herbert maintained that working with the private sector has helped Utah clean up its notoriously dirty air, which accumulates along the Wasatch Front in wintertime, an affliction known as “inversions.”

“We’ve reduced the pollution levels on the Wasatch Front by 87 percent,” he said. Some critics “it’s dirtier now than ever … well, it’s not.”

After a joke from moderator Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute about Hickenlooper, a Democrat, possibly being a Democratic contender for vice president, Herbert said energy policy shouldn’t be a partisan issue in the 2016 campaign.

“The focus should be on the economy, having a healthy economy. We’re not there yet in this country. This is the longest, driest recovery period we’ve had since the Great Depression. Something’s not working right. … If your focus is on the economy, it’s got to be at least part of the focus on energy.”

“We have an opportunity to have a sustainability where we don’t have to risk national security, or our economic well-being, because the people we have to deal with [importing oil] don’t like us.”

(Photo: Utah Office of Energy)

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Ethanol industry eagerly awaits EPA ruling

June 1 will mark the day when the Environmental Protection Agency finally gets around to issuing its new requirements for the Renewable Fuel Standards Act, after a delay of more than two years.

The EPA found itself between a rock and a hard place in 2013, when declining gasoline consumption pushed the ethanol production value specified by the 2006 act over the “blend wall” — the 10 percent mark at which ethanol mixture allegedly surpasses the 10 percent threshold for E10 blended gasoline. This can be a problem, because higher concentrations of ethanol are only approved in relatively newer vehicles.

The EPA punted in 2013, then again last year. Now at least the EPA seems ready to resume its responsibilities. The agency sent its proposal over to the White House Office of Budget and Management earlier this month, but no word has leaked out. The June 1 proposals will not be finalized until November.

Some biofuels producers argue that the agency should push past the 10 percent blend wall. The EPA has already approved E15 — a blend of up to 15 percent ethanol — for light duty vehicles, including trucks, SUVs and cars, made in model year 2001 and since then. Flex-fuel vehicles can also tolerate blends of up to E85. But there are questions about whether some older vehicles built before 2001 could potentially be harmed by higher blends. Automakers have threatened to void warranties for these cars if they use ethanol blends higher than E10.

The oil industry, which opposes raising the RFS, argues that the infrastructure for distributing blends higher than E10 does not exist and would be very expensive to put into place. Outfitting a gas station with E15 and E85 pumps brings added cost. Since 95 percent of gas stations are owned by independent operators, the chances that they will make this investment are very slim. Oil company and gas station operators say it is the biofuels industry that should make this investment. No one has been able to resolve this stalemate.

The EPA’s decision will come at a time when things are looking up for the biofuels industry. The Energy Information Administration recently announced that biofuel production hit 14.3 billion gallons last year, the highest output ever. Moreover, this increased production has been driven by new technologies. “If ethanol plant yields per bushel of corn in 2014 had remained at 1997 levels, the ethanol industry would have needed to grind an additional 343 million bushels, or 7% more corn,” reports Energy Global.

“To supply this incremental quantity of corn without withdrawing bushels from other uses would have required 2.2 million additional acres of corn to be cultivated, an area roughly equivalent to half the land area of New Jersey.”

Improvements in ethanol’s productivity have come from:

1) Larger-scale operations that have allowed better process technology such as finer grinding of corn to increase starch conversion
2) Better temperature of fermentation, which optimizes productivity
3) Better enzymes and yeast strains used in the process

Much of this extra production has been absorbed by revving up exports. U.S. ethanol exports reached an all-time peak of 1.087 billion gallons in 2011-2012, then slumped to 554 million gallons in 2012-2013 but bounced back to 792 million gallons in 2013-2014. This year exports are once again up 9 percent and may approach the 2011-2012 record.

Canada is our largest export target, but most of the ups and downs depend on what is happening in Brazil. That country has a mandate of 27 percent ethanol — mostly from sugar cane — but high sugar prices have cut into Brazilian production, and 70 refineries have gone out of business. Therefore Brazil has become more dependent on American corn ethanol to fulfill the requirements. As a result, the U.S. has been a net exporter of biofuels for the last five years.
Ethanol producers are also making progress in making the higher blends more recognizable and acceptable to motorists. American Ethanol just celebrated a five-year partnership with NASCAR that resulted in the circuit’s race cars running on E15.

“This has been a tremendous partnership,” Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, told AgriNews. “We are thrilled to help NASCAR in its green efforts and NASCAR’s high-performance racing has been the perfect validator for E15, a cleaner burning fuel that is less expensive and has a higher octane content, which improves performance.”

Biofuels advocates claim the use of E15 has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent over the 7 million miles traveled by the race cars in the last five years.

In Rensselaer, Indiana, the Iroquois BioEnergy Co. has opened a retail gas station that will offer ethanol blends E10, E15, E30 and E85. The station was partially funded by an Indiana Corn Marketing Council Flex Fuel Infrastructure grant.

“We want to use this pump to show the public the economic advantages of higher ethanol blends,” said Gunner Greene of Iroquois BioEnergy. “Our intent is to target those with flex-fuel vehicles who may not have a thorough understanding of the advantages of those vehicles.” The company was surprised to discover that 75 percent of its initial sales were for E85, with E30 coming in second place. They did not expect the demand for the higher blends to be so solid. The Corn Marketing Council has plans to fund 16 more flex-fuel stations around the state.

If the EPA approves the use of E30 and higher blends for nearly all cars, the country will probably be able to absorb the industry’s higher output. If not, exports may still pick up the slack. Either way, the ethanol industry is in much better shape than is commonly credited.

4 Non Blondes, The King and I and alternative fuels

4-non-blondes-650-430“Twenty-five years [lots more years for me] and my life is still
Trying to get up that great big hill of hope
For a destination”

Combine the lyrics from 4 Non Blondes with the personal frustration suggested by the “it’s a puzzlement” comment from the King of Siam in “The King and I,” expressed when he was perplexed by a changing world, and you will understand why many are confused by three relatively recent actions that limit or impede the growth of alternative fuels.

Most advocates of consumer choice at the pump and the end of Big Oil’s near-monopoly concerning transportation fuel praised the president’s State of the Union address a couple of years ago. He proposed that the nation wean itself off of oil. Wow, some fuel choice advocates were thrilled, almost orgiastic. Just think, in a couple of years customers might search for fuel stations selling a range of lower-cost alternative fuels, instead of only gasoline. Environmentalists welcomed the president’s comments. Less pollution and fewer GHG emissions! Most economists were pleased. They saw more jobs and further GNP growth. Servicemen were happy. They would be asked to fight fewer wars for oil.

In this context, there was hope that the cheaper cost of oil, and its derivative, gasoline — both of which are now rising in cost — juxtaposed with the regulations resulting from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Shell’s failure to use its original drilling permit to drill successfully and the availability of less expensive competitive fuels, would end the prospect of drilling in the pristine Arctic Circle off of Alaska’s coast. It would be just too costly. Good news! We can dream, can’t we!?

Similarly, some of my colleagues and friends who support fuel choice and a better shake for consumers than gasoline (concerning costs and GHG emissions), were hoping that improved technology, lower prices, and inventions like Elon Musk’s just-announced solar storage unit, could soon generate an increased ability for solar energy to power many coal-fired utilities, homes and even vehicles. In the aggregate, the U.S. would produce significantly fewer emissions and pollutants. What a welcome, possible, short-term happening! Musk for president!

The increased popularity of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) from Tesla (among those who can afford them) and the emergence of cheaper battery-powered vehicles from Detroit have also lent hope to those who are fuel agnostic or favor a long-term, robust renewable fuel market and more consumer choices at the pump. While electric cars offer a vision of the future, their broad acceptance by the public depends on design and technology improvements to both end the fear of running out of battery power while on the road, and provide more internal space — both at costs most Americans can afford. Both problems seem to be on the way to resolution, based on the pronouncements from Tesla and Detroit. We can only hope!

But despite the optimism gene internal to most Americans, the great “big hill of hope” has recently become even bigger to climb. While alternative fuel advocates remain relatively quiet and often unable to speak with one effective voice, federal and state policies and regulations have been changed to limit the ability of alternative fuels to secure significant market penetration. Despite large subsidies to the oil industry, neither the administration nor Congress has been willing to seriously try to weaken the ability of Big Oil to restrict alternative fuel sales at local gas stations. Indeed, several attempts to enact open fuels legislation have failed to even get out of Congressional committees.

Although the country seems awash in oil, just this week, the president gave conditional approval to Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea off of Alaska, despite the company’s mismanagement of earlier attempts to do the same, and despite the objections of many environmental groups and Alaskan natives. Both industry and critics of the permits note that drilling will be risky, given very high waves, icy seas, strong winds, bitter cold weather and the need to protect the routes of migration and feeding areas for marine mammals. As The New York Times indicated this week, the permit is a “major victory for the petroleum industry and a devastating blow to environmentalists,” and for consumers, I would add. Estimates of the oil in the Chukchi Sea range all over the place. However, if oil companies are able to overcome high drilling costs and secure a significant flow of oil, even for a relatively short time, they will increase their ability to limit sales of alternative fuels among their franchises and through differential pricing, the sales of alternative fuels by independent retailers.

It doesn’t get any better. Just as opportunities to secure and store solar power — power that could be used to power homes, autos and utilities — seem almost ready for prime time, many of America’s utility companies — another great supporter of competition (excuse the cynicism) — have begun to seek legislative relief to impede solar’s growth. Their argument deserves discussion. If solar power grows, it could well be at the expense of improvements in the grid. But the use of their political power with state legislatures to seek ad-hoc remedies, different in each state, is not in the public interest. Legislative efforts to lower the price solar users secure from utilities when they put excess power on the grid may or may not be good policy or practice. Shouldn’t we know before such policies are enacted by states? Similarly, putting up regulatory impediments impeding the sale of solar units, including storage units, would likely really hurt what is now a risky start-up industry. The net result of poorly conceived state-by-state initiatives to protect the utility industry would be to limit the capacity of solar energy to substitute for coal in powering utilities and to reduce options to produce cleaner electric cars with almost zero GHG emissions. Similarly, restricting the storage of solar energy would end up slowing down the development of another alternative fuel — one based on solar-derived power.

Finally, the continuing efforts by several states to change Tesla’s business model have and will reduce competition for fuels and the use of electricity as a fuel. Why? Several state legislatures, under political pressure from auto dealers, have banned its direct-sales approach. If Tesla wants to sell its electric-powered cars in Texas, for example, it must sell through an auto dealer. Remember, some Texans recently wanted to secede from the union in order to free the state from “federal dictatorship” and, ostensibly, extend personal freedom and its corollary market competition! (I thought of signing the petition that was floating around to let Texas go.) Passing laws to protect one kind of business from another is un-American…almost like sending the Texas National Guard to monitor the training of U.S. soldiers to be sure they are not digging tunnels under Walmart and engaging in other nefarious activities contrary to the interest of the good citizens of Texas. Davy Crockett would be offended. The bottom line is that Texas and other states with similar regulations are limiting fuel choice by placing a Berlin Wall around their boundaries and not letting Tesla and its electric vehicles in. Ah. Freedom!

So, supporters have some big hills to climb and sometimes it may be a puzzlement to the climbers. But, as the singer Billy Ocean once vocalized, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Building a coalition among the willing supporters of alternative fuels should not be difficult. They share goals concerning the need for increased consumer choices and the value of open fuel markets. If they reach out to include, rather than define boundaries to exclude; if they acknowledge that absolute wisdom concerning strategies does not exist; if they are willing to work toward consensus and bring their respective constituencies along with them; and if they recognize that time is of the essence concerning achievement of key public interest and quality of American life objectives, following Robert Frost, they will travel the road less traveled, and will likely soon begin to see light at the end of their travails and travels.

 

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Gas stations are adding ethanol, because it’s good for business

If you were to build a gas station today, from the ground up, you’d scribble out a list of the types of fuel you’d want to offer your customers. At the top, of course, would be regular 87-octane unleaded gasoline, which contains 10 percent ethanol. But next on the list likely would be E85 ethanol blend.

That’s right: Cheaper, cleaner-burning E85 might just be a hot seller, if you did it right. Mike Lewis, co-founder of Pearson Fuels in San Diego, has been selling it for 12 years, and he knows there’s a customer base out there for it. Last month he sold more than 34,000 gallons of E85 at his flagship station, accounting for 20.7 percent of his overall fuel sales.

map2Customers consistently buy more E85 at the station than mid-grade gas (89 octane), premium (91) or diesel combined.

“The reality is that there are flex-fuel vehicles everywhere, all over California, roughly 5 percent of the vehicles,” Lewis said. “So if you have a gas station, and you’re selling a lot of gasoline, then you can sell a lot of E85.”

Pearson supplies about 60 fueling stations with E85 and is partnering with station-retailer G&M Oil to put the fuel in 13 new stations in Southern California over the next year. The expansion is part of a national trend: Since 2007 the number of stations selling E85 has more than doubled, to about 3,000 today, roughly 2 percent of the nation’s total stations. E15 ethanol blend also is spreading across the country: Georgia got its first pumps Friday, and retailer Kum & Go added the fuel at its station in Windsor Heights, Iowa, and plans to introduce it at 60-some more over the next two years.

There are ample vehicles on the road that are ready to take the fuel: more than 17 million flex-fuel vehicles that can run on ethanol blends up to E85, including 1 million in California. And more customers are taking advantage of the many benefits of ethanol, including lower emissions and the fact that it’s made in the U.S.

Price is still the main attribute for customers, however. At the Pearson location in San Diego, the first station on the West Coast to sell E85 when it opened in 2003, E85 was priced at $2.44 a gallon earlier this week, compared with $3.55 for 87 octane. At one point, two station employees walked out with a long pole to change the 87 price to $3.65. Digits were added to the other gasoline grades accordingly.

“E85 customers are typically interested in one of two things: higher octane, because these guys have race cars,” Lewis said. “But the great majority of the customers buy it because it’s cheaper. They’re not out, frankly, to save the planet, they’re out to save a buck.”

Pearson_sign-360It can be difficult to price ethanol attractively if the price spikes or gasoline prices drop, narrowing the spread between the fuels. Unfortunately, both trends occurred late last year and early this year, as cold winter weather slowed the rail system that transports ethanol around the country, constricting supply. Meantime, the price of oil — and thus gasoline — dropped by 50 percent. It’s climbed again steadily this year.

Retailers often wipe out the normally sizable profit margin on ethanol by selling it for below wholesale. That’s what Lewis urged his retail clients to do as the least-bad option.

“But some of our retailers, if the price goes up and they happen to buy at the wrong time, they’ll say, ‘Tough, I’m making 25 cents [margin] a gallon, no matter how long it takes. So they’ll sit on that fuel for months. Whereas I would dump it [sell it for less], because if you dump it, you can go buy it for 50 cents a gallon less, and it’s just hard to get that through their heads sometimes. Some get it, and those do better.”

For retailers considering adding ethanol to their fuels menu, the equipment costs can be less than they’ve been led to believe, says Ron Lamberty, a gas-station owner who’s also a senior VP at the American Coalition for Ethanol in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His answer is to take that tank full of unpopular fuel and put E85 or E15 in it. All steel tanks, and fiberglass tanks built since 1994, can take higher ethanol blends, he said.

“I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and I remember when [premium gas] came in, in the mid-’80s, and the oil companies were saying, ‘If you don’t carry premium, you can’t carry our brand. We’re gonna take your sign down, we’re gonna take whatever remedy we can against you with your contract, and you’re gonna have to put premium in. And so there was all that expense of adding a tank and all those other things, to sell a fuel that cars didn’t need, that cost them more.”

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Tim Farnum, filling up his Chevy truck with E85.

At the Pearson station in San Diego, just off Interstate 15, vehicles come and go all day. Customers fill up on gasoline, E85, diesel and biodiesel. There’s an electric-vehicle charging station. There are nearly as many choices as there featured in the candy racks and beverage coolers at the store a few feet away. Lewis figures an average of 77 customers fill up on E85 each day. Tim Farnum, 47, who owns Farnum Electric with his brother, fueled up his Chevy 2500HD flex-fuel pickup. A while back they switched to the FFV trucks to save money. He figures he saves about $35 a tankful. “I only wish there were more stations around,” he said.

Lewis, like many of his customers, isn’t an environmentalist. He’s in business. And he’s selling ethanol because it makes money. E85, in fact, helped keep the station afloat before sales began to turn around about five years ago.

“I’m not out there protesting on the street, and tying myself to trees,” he said. “But I think that if you can make a business model that saves the consumer money, then you can make huge impacts by doing that. I mean, look at Tesla and what they’ve done for electric cars, look at what Toyota has done with hybrid cars. That’s what we’re doing with E85 and flex-fuel in California, and I think that you can make a massive difference if you make a business model work.”

Hofi-crop

Hofmeister: Oil companies actually hate high prices

When it comes to oil companies and how they think, John Hofmeister knows of what he speaks. So when the former president of Shell Oil took to the lectern at the Hudson Institute’s “Fueling American Growth” conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday and told the assembled that Big Oil actually doesn’t like high oil prices, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

And yet … let us gather that in: Companies like BP and ExxonMobil that post billions in earnings (or slightly less, as the price of oil slipped late in 2014 and into 2015) actually prefer a world in which a barrel of oil trades at a safe, predictable, boring price.

Here’s an excerpt from Hofmeister’s remarks:

Contrary to some popular belief, oil companies don’t actually like high oil prices. They like predictable, rational prices that deliver a return on investment over time. Companies do not like spiking, ever-higher prices, because of what happens as a consequence: The cure to high oil prices is high oil prices. People stop buying. Surpluses develop and prices collapse.

What’s the cure to low prices? Low prices. Because people stop producing and, sure enough, we run into shortages, and prices rise. This ever-continuing volatility is not good for the industry, it’s not good for national security, and it is horrific for the economy. And oil companies have been around for a long time. They see beyond the advantages of volatility either way, and look for those predictable price spots – they call them sweet spots, actually – where you can achieve an attractive investor return on investment, and you can maintain a stable workforce, and you can invest in R&D, and you can produce just enough energy to keep the nation well-supplied.

Hofmeister, who’s on the board of advisors with Fuel Freedom Foundation and is one of the stars of the foundation’s documentary, PUMP, has predicted that oil prices will continue to surge upward over the next year because U.S. drillers won’t be able to simply ramp up production quickly again after the recent downturn in prices forced many of them to suspend operations.

The foundation has argued that the best way to reduce oil consumption, end oil-market volatility and make prices gasoline permanently low for consumers is to open the transportation-fuel market to cheaper, cleaner alternatives like ethanol and methanol.

Hofmeister said: “We will never get past the volatility of oil until we get to alternatives to oil.”

The primary reason that I care so much about alternatives and future fuels is, as a person from the oil patch, I know the limitations. I know what’s possible and what’s not, and the appetite for oil worldwide will never, ever be satisfied from the oil patch. It can’t be. The risks, the costs, the geopolitics, really cannot begin to address the 2 billion people on this earth who really don’t have access to oil-based petroleum fuels, and most of them never will. There just isn’t enough.

You can watch the whole video clip here:


Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

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Non-food-based ethanol scaling up to succeed corn

Biofuels have been taking their lumps lately. After almost seven years of controversy, the European Parliament has acted to limit the amount of biofuels that can be garnered from land that could be used to grow food.

The EU has set itself a goal of getting 10 percent of its transport fuel from biofuels by 2020. Last week the Parliament voted to reduce this to 7 percent. The concern is that biofuels are taking food out of people’s mouths. Biofuels are also accused of leading to deforestation, both in Europe and in countries such as Brazil and Argentina, where Amazon rainforest and Argentinian pampas are being put under cultivation for growing biofuels for export.

“Let no one be in doubt, the biofuels bubble has burst,” Robbie Blake of Friends of the Earth Europe said in a statement. “These fuels do more harm than good for people, the environment and the climate. The EU’s long-awaited move to put the brakes on biofuels is a clear signal to the rest of the world that this is a false solution to the climate crisis. This must spark the end of burning food for fuel.”

Ironically, it was soft-energy guru Amory Lovins, who at the time was British representative of Friends of the Earth, who originally suggested the biofuels idea in his 1976 book, Soft Energy Paths. Lovins used an elaborate comparison with the beer and wine industry to show that it would be possible to produce a good one-third of the United States’ gasoline requirements through biofuels. Unfortunately, Lovins did not take account of the amount of land that would be required to grow these crops. This oversight has dogged the biofuels effort ever since.

In the U.S., criticism is mounting as well. A study published last month by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that corn and soy crops for biofuels are expanding into previously un-farmed prairie land in the Midwest. Using high-resolution satellite photographs, the authors identified the expansion of cropland from 2008 to 2012, the four years following the passage of the Renewable Fuels Act that mandated the use of biofuels. The authors estimate that 40 percent of the corn crop grown in the U.S. is now used to make ethanol for use in vehicles. Ironically, environmentalists who originally celebrated ethanol are among its biggest detractors.

So does this mean that American biofuels will soon be facing the same limitations they’ve encountered in Europe? Probably not. The reason, once again, is technology.

From the beginning, the dream of biofuels enthusiasts has been that ways could be found for breaking down the refractory cellulose molecule and turning it into basic sugars that can be synthesized into ethanol. This is a very difficult task. It can only be accomplished in two ways: 1) heating corn stover and other cellulosic materials to a very high temperature, which consumes more energy than is produced; and 2) taking advantage of bacteria in the guts of cows and termites that can break down cellulose. These bacteria are highly temperamental, however, and have proved to be extremely difficult to cultivate on a commercial scale.

Nevertheless, progress has been made, and there are several commercial operations now approaching successful operations. Among them are:

Abengoa Bioenergy (Hugoton, Kansas). This Spanish company’s cellulosic-ethanol facility came online in 2014 and is expected to produce 25 million gallons per year from corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble and switchgrass.

DuPont (Nevada, Iowa). Its 30 million-gallon-per-year cellulosic plant is scheduled to begin production this year. The plant will get corn stover from 500 farmers who are participating in the company’s Feedstock Harvest Program.

Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels (Emmetsburg, Iowa). Co-funded by a Dutch company, Project Liberty opened in September 2014 and is producing ethanol from corn cobs, leaves, husk and stalk. It is shooting for 25 MMGY.

Quad County Corn Processors (Galva, Iowa) started production last year. Its Quad County facility can produce 2MMGY. The company says its patented technology has the ability to generate 1 billion gallons per year, without consuming any more corn, by adding bolt-on technology to existing corn-ethanol refineries.

So ethanol is not standing still. The EPA is expected to issue its renewable fuel standard sometime next month, after dodging the issue for two years. The threshold likely will be below the 14 billion gallons that was originally scheduled for 2014. But the law’s requirement for Gen-2 biofuels has barely been scratched, since these cellulose efforts have not borne fruit to date. With cellulosic operations now gearing up, it appears that ethanol may be ready to take on a second life.

(Photo: Corn-stover harvest. Posted to Flickr by Idaho National Laboratory)

Canada, oh Canada, will your tar-sands oil help or hurt US fuel objectives?

Tar Pit #3I just finished a recent Forbes article by Jude Clemente, “Canada is North America’s Great Oil Security Blanket.” Gosh, it’s good to know that Canada can supply 10 million barrels a day for the next 675 years. Just think of the biblical proportions of Canada’s reserves. Methuselah lived only 969 years! I feel safer already.

I am (fairly) comfortable that the French won’t take over Quebec and act out residual imperial desires and that the British won’t try to recapture their former colonies. So, sleep easy and leave a note in the morning to your children, their children and their children’s children, ad nauseam. Future generations of U.S. residents won’t have to worry about the definitions of peak oil or real oil shortages, and we will always have fossil fuel in our future. Our very valued friend to the north can and will produce whatever oil the U.S. requires for centuries.

Aren’t we lucky?! Our decedents will be able to depend on what the author calls “ethical Canadian oil.” Why? He argues that “Canada is a democracy and a free market sought by investors that desire less risk.” Wow…freedom to choose and capitalism; John Rawls and Adam Smith. I am crying with joy. But my emotional high lasts for only a few minutes.

Do we need to substitute Middle East imports for Canadian imports, even though Canada is a trusted ally? Are Canadian oil reserves a real, long-term, strategic benefit to the U.S. and are they ethical (a funny term used in the context of big oil’s historical behavior, speculation with respect to investment in oil and the perils of surface mining)? According to many analysts, oil from tar sands is among the most polluting and GHG emission causing oil in the ground. Aren’t you happy? In light of reserves, we can tether ourselves to fossil fuels for hundreds of years and a range of environmental problems, including, but not limited to, air pollution, landscape destruction, toxic water resulting from tailing ponds and excessive water use. Many scientists warn of increased rates of cancer and other diseases. While the tar sand industry, to its credit, has tried to limit the problems, according to the Scientific American article by David Biello, “tar sands may be among the least climate- [and health-] friendly oil produced at present.” By the way, conversion to gasoline will likely result in higher prices for the least advantaged among us, not exactly Rawlsian ethics.

We are in a difficult position, policy wise. Sure, we can establish long-term institutional relationships with Canada and its provinces that will assure U.S. on-demand access for Canadian oil sands. To do this would be comforting to vested interests and some leaders who still believe that oil is the key to America’s economic future. But business, academic, nonprofit, community as well as government leaders are increasingly searching for alternatives that will be better for the economy, the environment and national security. Weaning the U.S. off of oil, as the president has sought, will require, at least for the transportation sector, substituting a “drill, baby, drill” mentality for a strategy that includes increased use of alternative fuels, open fuel markets and flex-fuel vehicles.

Alternative fuels are not perfect, but for the most part, they are much better than gasoline in light of national energy and fuel objectives. Many replacement fuels, like natural gas and natural gas-based ethanol, cannot compete easily because of government regulations (e.g., RFS, etc.) and oil company efforts, despite large subsidies to limit their purchase by consumers (e.g., lobbying against open competitive markets, franchise agreements, price setting, etc.). Most alternatives appear to have sufficient reserves to provide the consumer with cheaper and better fuel than gasoline for a long time. For example, natural gas seems to have more than a proven 100-year supply, and that’s without further exploration.

The policy framework is easier to define than implement given America’s interest group politics. It would go something like this: As soon as they are ready for prime time and reflect competitive prices, design and miles per tank, increasing numbers of electric and perhaps hydrogen-fueled cars will appeal to a much wider band of U.S. consumers than they do now. The nation should support initiatives to improve marketability of both thorough research and development. Until then, the good or the better should not be frustrated by the perfect or an unreal idealization of the perfect. Please remember that even electric cars spew greenhouse gas emissions when they are powered by utilities that are fired up by coal, and that the most immediately available source of hydrogen-based fuel is natural gas. Currently, there are no defined predictable supply chains for hydrogen fuel. Perhaps, more important, neither electricity nor hydrogen fuel cells can be used in the 300,000,000 existing cars and their internal combustion engines.

So what’s a country to do, particularly one like the U.S., which is assumedly interested in reducing GHG emissions, protecting the environment, growing the economy and decreasing dependence on foreign oil? Paraphrasing, the poet Robert Frost, let’s take the road less traveled. Let’s develop and implement a strategic, alternative-fuels approach that incorporates expanding consumer choices regarding corn and natural gas-based ethanol, a range of bio fuels and more electric and hydrogen fuel cars. Let’s match alternative fuels with initiatives to increase Detroit’s production of new FFVs and the capacity (through software adjustments and conversion kits) for consumers to convert their existing cars to FFVs. To succeed, we should take a collective Alka-Seltzer and build a diverse strong fuels coalition that will encourage the U.S. to develop a comprehensive, alternative fuel strategy. The coalition, once formed, should place its bet on faith in the public interest and good analysis to gain citizen and congressional support. I bet the nation is ready for success — just remember how Linus of the famous Peanuts comic strip ultimately gave up his security blanket.

 

Photo Credit: http://priceofoil.org/

Oil, petrodollars and war. Does the U.S. need to permanently police the Middle East?

Soldiers Conduct Combined Clearing OperationThe U.S. interest in going to war or supporting war efforts on behalf of our “democratic” allies like Iraq, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is not based, as said by some political leaders, on converting those countries to democracies or providing their citizens with increased freedom. Neither is it, primarily, aimed at reducing terrorism possibilities here at home. For the most part, it is instead aimed at protecting the U.S. and our allies’ interests in oil and stability in some of the most corrupt, autocratic oil-producing states in the Middle East.

Surely, recent history indicates that use of patriotic and compassionate language reflecting America’s historical ethos to justify our actions often wins initial public support for “Operation This” or “Operation That,” but as conflicts drag on and U.S. soldiers, sailors or marines suffer physical and emotional wounds, the gap between articulated justifications and reality becomes clearer to the public. When the fog of war or near-wars lifts a bit, support for U.S. military activity, often becomes muted among the citizenry.

Concern for protecting oil resources, production and distribution has been, and is currently, a paramount objective of the U.S. The U.S. and its allies have helped overturn governments, remake global maps, redefine national or tribal borders, create new nation states and abandon old ones and dispatch national leaders. Contrary to Gen. Powell’s admonition, we sometimes have failed to own the disastrous results of the wars that we have fought (Libya, Iraq, etc.). Based on our own desire for oil, we have tolerated sometimes exotic and many times terrible behavior among private oligarchs and despotic rulers, which, regrettably, often, escapes coverage in text books and in the media. Clearly, the link between our large-scale addiction to oil and its negative political, social and economic consequences in several Middle Eastern countries lacks sustained attention in our public policy dialogue.

The importance of oil and the U.S. willingness to go to war or engage in covert activities to protect it has been intensified by the relationship between petrodollars and the U.S. economy. Since 1944 at The Bretton Woods Conference, the global reserve currency has been the good old U.S. dollar. First, gold was the back-up to the dollar. As reported by the Huffington Post, the dollar was pegged at $35 to an ounce of gold and was freely exchangeable. “But by 1971, convertibility of gold was no longer viable as America’s gold resources had drained away. Instead, the dollar became a pure fiat currency (decoupled from any physical store of value) until the petrodollar agreement was concluded by President Nixon in 1973. The essence of the deal was that the U.S. would agree to military sales and defense of Saudi Arabia in return for all oil trade being denominated in U.S. dollars.” We as a nation committed to go to war in return for ostensible economic benefits and access to oil.

Was it good for the American economy? Sure, at least in the short run. The dollar became the only currency for energy trading. All foreign governments desiring to secure and trade for oil had to hold U.S. currency. The dollar was easily converted into barrels of oil. As the Huffington Post indicated, the dollar costs for oil flowed back into the U.S. financial system. What a deal!

Recently, lower U.S. interest rates, a troubled, slow-growing U.S. economy and the rise of oil-shale production in the U.S. has muted the almost-absolute, four-decade direct relationship between the dollar, and other nations’ need for oil and or export of oil. Instead of “next year in Jerusalem,” some nations like China, Russia and even France and Germany have indicated next year either a return to gold or the use of their own currencies as a peg to trading. However, the petrodollar still plays an important role in the exchange of oil in the global trading system. Its demise, as Mark Twain suggested about reports of his death, is, if not greatly, (at least) somewhat exaggerated. I suspect the petrodollar will be with us for some time.

Our nation’s willingness to militarize support of countries that depart radically from supposed U.S. norms of global behavior (encoded in the U.N Charter and other international agreements), because of their oil resources and the post-World War II emergence of dollar-based trading in oil and its benefits, has muddled U.S. foreign policy. Critics have questioned our not-so benign initiatives in countries throughout the Middle East and, as a result, they have raised issues concerning supposed American exceptionalism.

We have more than just a Hobson choice (that is, there is no real choice at all) if we choose to break from oil dependency. Increased U.S. oil production to secure profits and reach demand will still require both importing and exporting oil. This fact, coupled with the desire to keep the dollar the key oil-trading denomination, will sustain U.S. entanglements and the probability that we will continue to play oil policemen in many places.

A different future could be achieved if we took the president seriously and tried to “wean” ourselves off of oil. Paraphrasing liberally and adding my own meaning, Léon Blum, former French leader, “Life doesn’t give itself to one [nation] who tries to keep all of its advantages at once…morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice [between energy sources and fuels].” The U.S. has not had the political guts yet to really focus on converting from an oil- and gas-based economy and social structure to an alternative energy and fuel-based one (e.g., natural gas, ethanol, methanol, biofuels, electricity and hydro fuels). Such a strategy would allow consumers greater freedom at the pump. It would be fuel agnostic and let consumers pick winners and losers based on cost, and impact on the quality of their lives and the nation’s life. We know that if we do make alternative energy and fuel choices now, based on equity, efficiency, GHG emissions and pollution reduction criteria, we can secure important environmental, economic, social and security benefits. To fail to act is an act itself, one that will harm the nation’s efforts to become the country on the shining hill and pave the way for other countries and itself to access a better, more peaceful future for present children and their children.

 

Photo Credit: www.defense.gov

 

The Saudis and oil prices — the diminishing value of conspiracy theories

saudi_1880139cEveryone likes hidden conspiracies, either fact or fiction. Covert conspiracies are the stuff of great and not-so-great novels. Whether true or false, when believed, they often cause tectonic policy shifts, wars, terrorism and ugly behavior by groups and individuals. They are part of being human and sometimes reflect the inhumanity of men and women toward their fellow human beings.

I have been following the recent media attention on conspiracies concerning oil, gasoline and Saudi Arabia. They are all over the place. If foolish consistency is the “hobgoblin of little minds” (Ralph Waldo Emerson), then the reporters and editorial writers are supportive stringers for inconsistency. Let me briefly summarize the thoughts and counter thoughts of some of the reported conspiracy theorists and practitioners:

  1. The Saudis are refusing to limit production and raise the price of oil because they want to severely weaken the economy of Iran. The tension between the two nations has increased and, to some extent, is now being framed both by real politics (concerning who’s going to carry the big stick in the region) and by sectarianism. Iran’s oil remains under sanction and the Saudis hope (and may even be working with Israel, at least in a back-office way) to keep it that way.
  2. No, you’re wrong. The Saudis are now after market penetration and are lowering the price of oil to impede U.S. development and production of oil from shale. Right now, they are not worrying so much about oil from Iran-given sanctions…but they probably will, if there is a nuclear deal between the West and Iran.
  3. You both are nuts. The Saudis and the U.S. government are working together to blunt Russian oil sales and its economy. The U.S. and Saudis can withstand low oil prices, but the Russians are, and will be, significantly hurt economically. If it hurts Iran so much, the better! But the Cold War is back and the reset is a failure.
  4. Everyone is missing the boat. The Saudis don’t really control prices or production to the extent that they did in the past. Neither does OPEC. Don’t look for conspiracies, except perhaps within the Kingdom itself. The most powerful members of the Saudi royal family understand that if they limit production to raise prices per barrel, it probably wouldn’t work in a major way. The U.S. has become a behemoth concerning oil from shale. If a nuclear deal goes through, Iran will have sanctions lessoned or removed relatively soon. Should the Russian and West reach some sort of cold peace in Ukraine, Russia will become a player again. When you add Canada, Iraq, Libya and the Gulf States to the mix, lower global demand, and increase the value of the dollar, you get an uncertain oil future. The Saudis, led by their new king, are buying time and casing out their oil future.

To me, the Saudi decisions and the subsequent OPEC decisions were muddled through. Yet, they appear reasonably rational. Saudi leaders feared rising prices and less oil production. Their opportunity costing, likely, went something like this: “If we raise prices, and reduce production, we will lose global market share and maybe, in the current market, even dollar or riyal value. Our production costs are relatively low, compared to shale development in the U.S. While costs may go higher in the future, particularly once drilling on flat desert land becomes more difficult in light of geology, we can make a profit at the present time, even at $30-40 a barrel. Conversely, we believe that for the time being, U.S. shale developers cannot make a profit going below $40-50. Maybe we are wrong, but if we are, our cost/profit equation is not wrong by much. By doing what we are doing, we will undercut American production. Sure, other exporting countries, including our allies in the Gulf will be hurt temporarily, but, in the long run, they and we will be better off. Further, restricting production and assumedly securing higher prices is not a compelling approach. It could cause political and social tension in the country. We rely on oil sales, cash flow and profit as well as reserves to, in effect, buy at least short-term civic peace from our citizens. Oil revenue helps support social services and basic infrastructure. We’ve got to keep it coming.”

The Kingdom understands that it can no longer control prices through production — influence, yes, but, with the rise of U.S. oil development, it cannot control production. Conspiracy theories or assumed practices don’t add much to the analysis of Saudi behavior concerning their cherished oil resources. Like a steamy novel, they fill our reading time, and sometimes lead to a rise in personal adrenaline. Often, at different moments, they define the bad guys vs. the good guys, or Taylor Swift vs. Madonna.

No single nation will probably have the power once held by OPEC and the Saudis. While human and institutional frailties and desires for wealth and power suggest there always will be conspiratorial practices aimed at influencing international prices of oil and international power relationships, their relevance and impact will diminish significantly. Their net effect will become apparent, mostly with respect to regional and local environments, like Yemen and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Recently, I asked a Special Forces officer, “Why is the U.S. fighting in Iraq?” I expected him to recite the speeches of politicians — you know, the ones about democracy, freedom and a better life for the citizens of Iraq. But he articulated none of these. He said one word, “Oil”! All the rest is B.S. I think he was and remains mostly right. His answer might help us understand part of the reason for the strange alliance between the Saudis and U.S. military efforts in or near Yemen at the present time. Beyond religious hatred and regional power struggles, it might also help us comprehend at least part of the reasons for Iran’s support of the U.S.-led war against ISIS — a war that also involves other “democratic” friends of the U.S. such as the Saudis and the Gulf States.

The alliances involve bitter enemies. On the surface, they seem somewhat mystifying. Sure, complex sectarian and power issues are involved, and the enemies of my enemies can sometimes become, in these two cases, less than transparent friends. But you know, these two conflicts — Yemen and ISIS — I believe, also reflect the combatant’s interest in oil and keeping oil-shipping routes open.

President Obama has argued that we should use alternative energy sources to fuel America’s economy and he has stated that we need to wean the U.S. off of oil and gasoline. Doing both, if successful, would be good for the environment, and limit the need to send our military to protect oil lifelines. Similarly, opening up U.S. fuel markets to alternative fuels and competition would mute the U.S. military intervention gene, while curing us, to a large degree, of mistakenly granting conspiracy advocates much respectability. Oh, I forgot to indicate that the oil companies continue their secret meetings. Their agenda is to frustrate the evolution of open fuel markets and consumer choices concerning fuel at the pump. Back to the conspiracy drawing boards! Nothing is what it seems, is it?

 

Photo credit: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/

classroom

PUMP on campus: Houston, Humboldt, UCI host screenings

PUMP could have taken Friday off, or ditched class early and headed straight for the beer garden. But there’s still work to do.

The documentary is heading to campus for a pair of Friday-night screenings: at the University of Houston and at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. On Monday the film will be shown at UC Irvine.

PUMP actually was released in theaters last fall, to great reviews and audience response, but it’s getting a second wind: On Friday it hits the big screen at Kingsway Movies in Toronto. And of course, there’s Netflix and DVD if you want to watch PUMP in the privacy of your home with the beverage of your choice (Check out Marc Rauch’s recipe for an America Libre made with corn whiskey).

Here are the details on the upcoming university screenings. And yes, this will be on the final:

Humboldt: 5 p.m. PDT Friday, Downstairs at the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology, 1 Harpst St., Arcata. Host: PowerSave and CCAT.

U. of Houston: 5:30 p.m. CDT Friday, Cemo Hall Auditorium, 4800 Calhoun Rd. Host: Energy Department. Q&A with Fuel Freedom board advisor and former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister afterward.

UCI: 6 p.m. PDT Monday, Steinhaus Hall, Room 134. Host: Climatepedia.

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