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Puncturing the myth of 14X improvement in biofuels

Jim Lane was demonstrating some of his usual skepticism when he took on the story of a 14X improvement in the production of biofuels last week.

The story began with an item in Renewable Energy World, Green Car Congress and several other publications. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a report on its website stating that a bacterium had been discovered that processed biofuel from cellulose material at 14 times the rate of previously used bacteria.

Lane starts with an apology as to why Biofuels Digest didn’t get too excited about this announcement.

You may have wondered why the discovery was not also hailed in The Digest this week, and on the topic there’s good and bad news, friends.

The good news is that such an enzyme exists, though it doesn’t quite perform at the 14X level and isn’t out of the lab yet. The bad news is that the research that inspired the article actually was published in Science in 2013. Sorry, folks, not a new breakthrough.

First, Lane takes these publications to school for a little elementary arithmetic. The articles said that the new microbe “revealed twice the total sugar conversion in two days” that the present microbe “usually produced in seven.” But as Lane points out, that means it’s 7X as effective, not 14X. But “What does it matter,” he says. “Two of the stubborn problems in converting cellulose to fuels have been the cost of enzymes and the capex [capital expenditures] associated with the technology.” Neither problem is really addressed by the new enzyme.

Actually, the new enzyme – caldicellulosedisruptor bescii, which was discovered in a region of hot springs and land on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula — does hold some promise. Because they are so tolerant of heat (up to 193 degrees F), they promise to eliminate the pretreatment of cellulosic material, which would mean a huge saving in processing. Almost half the cost of reducing cellulosic material to sugars comes in pre-treatment. The trick will be getting the process that has been demonstrated in the lab to be repeated on a commercial scale. “Let’s locate all of this where it is, which is in the lab. Which is about 10 years from appearing in an at-scale process somewhere, you average out the timelines for bringing processes based on other microbes to full commercial scale.”

Which is to say, no one has shown that these results can be achieved in a 500 liter fermenter, much less a million liter monster as we see in commercial scale operations. There’s going to be, lime, zero knowledge at this stage about the behavior of these microbes in a fermenter under the incomplete mixing conditions that almost invariably are found at scale.

So, let’s keep the risks in mind, and the timelines, too – even as we hail a genuinely promising and fascinating scientific advance.

Lane has some quiet optimism about the process itself. He isn’t as entirely cynical as he would let on.

There has indeed been some research showing that the CelA bacteria can handle large quantities of cellulosic material in a commercial setting. As BioDigest reported last year, “a group of researchers led by the University of Georgia’s Mike Adams demonstrated that caldicellolusiruptor could “without pretreatment, break down biomass, including lignin, and release sugars for biofuels and chemicals production.” The group wrote in Energy & Environmental Science that “the majority (85%) of insoluble switchgrass biomass that had not been previously chemically treated was degraded at 78 °C by the anaerobic bacterium Caldicellulosiruptor bescii.)”

Digesting switchgrass and other cellulosic material into sugars — which can easily be converted to ethanol — would be a huge advance, even if it took ten years to bring into play. Even if it’s not the miracle that some have touted, it’s a huge advance. The question of which publication broke the story first will fade, and we’ll soon know if the new bacteria really can help us turn seemingly intractable vegetable material into a useful fuel.

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Does ethanol have to be hurt by falling gas prices?

Jim Lane, editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest, is one person who thinks alternative fuels aren’t necessarily going to be hurt by the huge drop in the price of crude oil.

In a post on the Digest Jan. 6, Lane lays out the rather complicated case of why it doesn’t pay right now to be dumping your alternate-energy stocks. That’s been the reaction so far to anything related to the price of oil. But Lane says there are special aspects of alternatives like ethanol that will be affected in a different way.

In the first place, Lane notes that while crude oil prices have been falling, ethanol prices have been falling, too. Since last June, crude oil has fallen from $115 a barrel to under $50, a remarkable 60 percent drop. Yet ethanol has fallen as well, from $2.13 a gallon to $1.55 a gallon, a formidable 27 percent drop. This is due mainly to the falling price of corn, which has been at its lowest level in recent years. A bushel of corn fell over the same period from $4.19 a bushel to $3.78, a 10 percent drop. In this way, ethanol is only marginally dependent on the price of oil and can show its own price pattern.

One thing worth noting is that there is a certain amount of elasticity in American driving. People tend to increase their driving range when the price of gasoline goes down. This is particularly true when it comes to taking vacations, which tend to be a long-term planning effort. If the price of gasoline stays down through next summer, people are more likely to increase gas consumption. The fact is that gasoline demand has actually reached its highest point in the last few months since the price of oil began to fall, as the following graph indicates:

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Now drivers are required to include 10 percent ethanol in each gallon of gas. Therefore, ethanol has a fixed market. Driving has been declining in recent years, which is one reason that the Renewable Fuel Standard has been under fire – because the absolute amount of ethanol required has exceeded the 10 percent requirement in relation to the amount of gasoline consumed. Refiners and oil companies must buy this amount of ethanol. This is the reason the Environmental Protection Agency has been holding back on setting an RFS for 2014 — because the original amount prescribed was going to exceed the 10 percent figure. If people start taking advantage of lower gas prices and start consuming more gasoline, the amount of ethanol required will grow. “(W)e should be seeing a 2+% increase in gasoline demand, and that will take some pressure off the ethanol blend wall,” Lane writes. It might make EPA’s decision easier, if it ever gets around to setting a number.

Just to emphasize this point, an RIN — Renewable Index Number — is required by the EPA to prove that a refinery has been adding ethanol up to the 10 percent mark. The price of RINs has actually been rising as gas prices have fallen. As Lane writes: “Part of the reason that the ethanol market is holding up relatively well in tough times is the impact of the Renewable Fuel Standard, and its traded RIN system. RIN prices have jumped as oil prices have slumped — and a $0.76 increase in the RIN value of a gallon of fuel is a striking increase in value.”

So all is not dark for the future of alternatives. Ethanol’s place is secure, despite the fall in gasoline prices. Remember, it’s not that demand for gas is falling, but people are spending less for what they get. If methanol is given a chance, it might turn out to be more invulnerable, since it’s not tied to corn prices but to natural gas, which we seem to have in even greater abundance than oil. Electric cars also don’t lose their appeal, since much of their appeal is getting off gas entirely and unbuckling from the oil companies. It may not be time to abandon your stock in alternative energies quite yet.

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Obama aims to cut methane emissions 45 percent

President Obama’s latest effort to mitigate the effects of climate change will be to crack down on methane leakage from oil and gas wells, The New York Times reported.

The EPA will announce new regulations this week aimed at reducing methane emissions by 45 percent by 2025, compared with 2012 levels. Final rules will be set by 2016, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous sources.

Obama, stymied by Republican opposition that stands to become more solidified now that the party controls the Senate as well as the House, has increasingly turned to executive action, skirting Congress, to deal with climate change. The administration says the Clean Air Act gives it the green light to issue such mandates.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, sometimes escapes from oil and gas wells, in addition to pipelines. Although the gas accounts for only 9 percent of overall greenhouse-gas emissions, it’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, another GHG that accounts for the majority of emissions.

The Natural Resources Defense Council applauded the proposed regulations, but the oil and gas industry said they’re unnecessary, since they’re already motivated to capture methane instead of allowing it to escape into the atmosphere. If it’s captured, it can be burned in power plants to generate electricity, making it a cleaner alternative to coal. Methane can also be used to fuel cars and trucks, as compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG) natural gas. It can also be converted into two types of inexpensive liquid alcohol fuels, ethanol or methanol.

Howard Feldman, director of regulatory affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said:

“We don’t need regulation to capture it, because we are incentivized to do it. We want to bring it to market.”

That market would grow if the infrastructure for transportation fuels were expanded, creating more of an incentive to capture methane. The price of natural gas stood at $12.68 per million metric British Thermal Units (MmBTU) in June 2008, only to crash to $1.95 by April 2012. Last month the average was $3.43 at the Henry Hub terminal in Louisiana. Profit margins are still so low that oil drillers flare off much of it.

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Read before you download: What the critics said about PUMP

PUMP hit theaters around the country in September, and now it’s about to hit the digital landscape.

You can download it on iTunes now. You can watch the trailer, and learn more about the film and the experts who made it such a success, at PumpTheMovie.com

PUMP was a hit with the public and the critics: On Rotten Tomatoes, 85 percent of viewers said they liked the film, while 73 percent of critics gave favorable reviews.

You should do yourself a favor and read some of these reviews yourself, though: The critics who saw PUMP had very nuanced, well-thought-out views, giving the important issues raised in the film the proper weight.

Below are excerpts from some of the bigger media outlets that reviewed the film. Read all about it, then watch the film and tell us what you think!

The Washington Post:

” … the movie makes compelling points. More important, the film suggests both long-term and short-term solutions.

“… if consumers hate oil so much, why aren’t there more readily available alternatives?

“That’s the question the documentary keeps circling back to, which is a smart approach because it’s aimed at appealing to both eco-conscious liberals and fiscal conservatives.”

The New York Times:
“… the arguments have an appealing logic for those concerned about the environment.

“… the movie goes beyond alarmism with solutions that on the surface would seem to find common ground between environmental advocacy and unfettered capitalism.”

The Hollywood Reporter:
“The historical overview they provide is insightful and lucid … The headline is that most cars on today’s roads could easily run on non-petroleum fuels that are cheaper, cleaner and more plentiful than gasoline. At the heart of the doc is ultra-practical information with the potential to galvanize a broad audience.

“Their thesis transcends red-state/blue-state polarities.

“The shift from quiet how-we-got-here outrage to hope, in the form of hands-on specifics, torques Pump and gives it momentum.

“… the eye-opener is that millions of American vehicles are already equipped to switch between gas and ethanol.

“Pump offers a map to true competition à la Brazil’s, and argues convincingly that there would be profound and wide-ranging benefits if American car owners were in the driver’s seat.”

The Los Angeles Times:
“Viewers of ’60 Minutes’ will experience déjà vu during vignettes on Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors and Brazil’s exemplary national conversion to ethanol, but ‘Pump’ ventures a step further to explore the practicality of flex-fuel vehicles in this country and methanol as another fuel alternative.

“As far as documentaries go, the film is exhaustively researched, interviewed and documented. Its disclosure that General Motors declined multiple interview requests earns the film some credibility where other advocacy docs fall short. It arms advocates with plenty of well-reasoned and compelling talking points …”

Variety:
“This zippily edited docu aims less to chastise than to emphasize that solutions to our oil addiction and much-vaunted desire for energy independence are tantalizingly close at hand.

“For unabashed agitprop, ‘Pump’ is quite entertaining, drawing together colorful archival footage, interviewed experts and ordinary folk, as well as sojourns to China (in the wake of its economic boom now the world’s largest market for cars) and Brazil (whose shift to ethanol production brought prosperous energy dependence), in a lively, professional package.”

The Oregonian:

“The most convincing testimony comes from John Hofmeister, a former president of Shell Oil who has switched sides. But the real stars of ‘Pump’ are the hackers and engineers who’ve devised cheap and easy ways to convert vehicles to flex-fuel capability.

“The inability of our capitalist economy to exploit this untapped market is puzzling until the filmmakers get to the part about the massive political donations made by Big Oil. Switching from gasoline to a cheaper, more environmentally friendly, domestically available fuel won’t address the other negative consequences of car culture — urban sprawl, traffic congestion, increased obesity — and neither does the film. But by pointing out simple things that could make huge differences, it’s a solid first step.”

Bloomberg BusinessWeek:
“This is the second feature about ending America’s dependence on oil from the wife-husband team of Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Josh Tickell. They’re tub-thumpers, but not shrill. Their thrust is roughly that cars = freedom. Americans love their freedom, and they sure do love their cars. Yet strangely, car- and freedom-loving Americans lack freedom of choice when it comes to what their cars run on. What gives? Oil is far from the best fuel for an automobile—not even close, if you factor in extraction costs, energy security, and pollution.

“Determined not to dwell on the negative, Pump introduces us to hobbyists, entrepreneurs, and even indie service station owners already making the break from petroleum.”

Village Voice:
“A car’s high beams trace slow-motion lightning across the highway. An auto worker in suspenders strides the factory floor. These seductive images of the American automotive industry act as dreamy parentheses to Josh and Rebecca Tickell’s compelling and cogent documentary Pump, which examines why Americans are so lacking in options at the gas station, what that means about the future of transportation and environmental health, and why the oil-driven American Dream must die — why it is dying.

“By carefully tracing the history of the oil companies’ legislative and consumer power and influence, the directors explore America’s issue of substance dependence, and indict the companies that act as enablers. If you’re not convinced we’re addicted, ask yourself if you could quit at any time.”

Reuters’ Breakingviews:
“A narrow focus helps “Pump” make its point clearly. The filmmakers don’t take on global warming or automobiles. Their solution is simple and straightforward: introduce competition at the gas station and let the invisible hand do the rest.

“Demand for alternatives, including electric vehicles from Elon Musk’s Tesla, is … growing alongside a crude backlash. On Monday, for example, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, an $860 million philanthropic organization that owes its existence to the Standard Oil fortune, said it would divest from fossil fuels. The collective effect of all these efforts, including the message from ‘Pump,’ may just help fuel a trend.”

The Source magazine:
” ‘Pump’ makes clear one thing: oil is used in everything, from clothing to furniture, plastics to medicine and, yes, even engines to power cars. And increased demand leads to, you guessed, higher prices. ‘Pump’ explores this in a holistic, appreciative and thoughtful way.

‘Pump’ explores a range of alternative fuels including ethanol, methanol, natural gas among others, but never suggests humanity stop driving cars altogether. It would be a major technological step backward, damaging decades of effort. Instead, ‘Pump’ offers reasonable, grassroots-style progress that enables anyone to make a sustainable change.”

Cinemacy:

http://cinemacy.com/pump/

“One thing was made clear to me, we have a right to choose how we fuel our cars and that right is not being acknowledged by the government or big oil companies, which means the responsibility for change lays solely on us.

“The unpredictable cost of fuel, coupled with the damaging effects to our environment and our dependency to over-seas oil rigs is a scary future that we find ourselves looking at today. We are forced into limited choices at the pump, which only creates a stronger foreign dependency and a wealthier fuel monopoly. The message Pump presents, once you get past the numbers game, is simple: American made replacement fuels will equal more jobs, a healthier environment, and a stimulated, growing economy.”

Related posts:

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Throwback Thursday: Henry Ford, alcohol-fuel visionary

We might think of oil and automobiles as inextricably linked. But the earliest mass-produced vehicles were designed to run on multiple fuels, not just gasoline.

Henry Ford brought us the original mass-market flex-fuel vehicle. That fact made him one of the biggest stars of the Fuel Freedom-produced documentary PUMP the Movie, which is now available to download on iTunes, for purchase or rental.

Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908, could run just as well on alcohol fuels as on traditional gasoline. The driver could easily switch from one fuel to the other simply by turning a brass knob to the right of the steering column. This turned a screw in the carburetor, allowing either more or less fuel to enter the engine and mix with air. Alcohol fuel doesn’t contain as much energy as gasoline, so more of it needs to be injected to run the engine as well.

As David Blume, another PUMP star, shows in this video, drivers needed to switch between fuels because they wouldn’t know which fuel source would be available when they were out on a drive.

Henry Ford22Ford grew up on a farm in Michigan and always held farms, and farmers, dear to his heart. As historian Bill Kovarik’s fascinating study of Ford’s alcohol-fuel dedication shows, he clearly wanted to help cash-strapped farmers get into new markets by promoting agricultural products as fuel sources — not only corn, but anything else that could be fermented.

In 1919, Ford told The Christian Science Monitor (according to this New York Times account): “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach [a flowering plant] out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything.”

The movement to run vehicles on ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, was dealt a severe blow by the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, known as Prohibition, which banned the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” even alcohol (ethanol is also known as grain alcohol, or “moonshine”) used as a fuel. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and by then the ethanol market was severely weakened in America. Read Bill Ganzel’s truth-stranger-than-fiction account of what happened next, when the U.S. became convinced that leaded gasoline was the best way to raise gasoline octane levels.

But ethanol has staged an epic comeback: More than 13 billion gallons was used in 2013, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. That figure could reach 36 billion gallons by 2022 if the federal government continues to mandate blending an increasing amount of ethanol into the nation’s gas supply, under the Renewable Fuel Standard guidelines.

Make your voice heard: Sign Fuel Freedom’s petition urging major independent fueling retailers like Costco and Walmart to offer ethanol as an option for their customers.

Because unlike back in the day, you don’t even need a knob to make the switch to ethanol.

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Press release: PUMP coming to iTunes on Tuesday, Jan. 13

EYE-OPENING DOCUMENTARY PUMP, NOW AVAILABLE ON iTUNES, IS THE MOVIE THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE ABOUT FUEL FOREVER.

NARRATED BY JASON BATEMAN

 

Watch the trailer on YouTube

Download the film on iTunes

 

LOS ANGELES, CA, January 8 2015 – After a successful limited theatrical release this fall, PUMP will be available January 13, 2015 to a wider audience. Submarine Deluxe, in association with Fuel Freedom Foundation and iDeal Film Partners, are digitally releasing the film exclusively through iTunes.

The inspiring and eye-opening documentary conveys the story of America’s addiction to oil, from its corporate conspiracy beginnings to its current monopoly today, and explains clearly and simply how we can end it – and finally win choice at the pump. Directed by Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, with narration by Jason Bateman, PUMP is an important film for anyone who drives or owns a car.

Today, oil is our only option of transportation fuel at the pump. Our exclusive use of it has drained our wallets, increased air pollution and sent our sons and daughters to war in faraway lands. PUMP shows us how, through the use of a variety of replacement fuels, we can fill up our cars with cheaper, cleaner, American made fuels – and in the process, create more jobs for a stronger, healthier economy.

Notable experts such as John Hofmeister, former President of Shell Oil US; Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors; Peter Goldmark, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation; and other noteworthy figures are also featured in the film, and all share their passionate views and knowledge.

PUMP will inform the audience how to change their lives for the better: convert cars to run on multiple fuels, save money, create jobs and improve the environment.

For additional information please contact one of the following representatives:

BIG TIME PR

Sylvia Desrochers – Sylvia@bigtime-pr.com- 424.208.3496

Jasmine Davis – [email protected] – 424.208.3496

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Movies about energy: ‘Casablanca,’ ‘Mad Max’ and PUMP

When Fuel Freedom Foundation released PUMP in theaters in September, we never dreamed it would be mentioned in the same breath as “Casablanca” and “Mad Max.”

But when The Wall Street Journal asked a panel of experts to list some “Films that Explain Important Energy Issues,” there was PUMP .

The Dec. 30 post, on “The Experts” blog, featured Fuel Freedom board advisor John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil Co., praising PUMP for showing how introducing competition in transportation fuels could reduce prices, lessen our dependence on oil, improve health and slow environmental degradation.

Hofmeister, a frequent source for The Journal who’s also arguably the biggest “star” of PUMP, adds:

There is also an underlying national security implication of using a wider and larger quantity of alternative fuels produced domestically. It reduces reliance on oil imports, creates more economic value and jobs in domestic economies, and expands choice, which Americans love, for the products they purchase. It creates a new market for the abundant and far less expensive natural gas that the shale transformation provides to the nation.

Check out the reviews of PUMP, and read more about the film on PUMPTheMovie.com. The documentary, narrated by Jason Bateman, will be released on iTunes on Jan. 13 and is now available for pre-order.

So how do “Casablanca” and “Mad Max” figure into the energy argument? You’ll have to read the WSJ post to find out. Although one could argue that “The Road Warrior” also is a great commentary on the power and influence that gasoline holds.

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Make a fuel choice resolution for 2015

Resolution time, people: Forget the gym, forget cleaning out the garage, forget writing that novel.

Resolve to start small in helping the economy and helping the environment in 2015: Sign the “fuel choice resolution” on the Fuel Freedom website today.

No. 1 on the list is: Watch PUMP the movie, of course. The documentary is coming to iTunes on Jan. 13, and is available now for pre-order. If you happen to be in Omaha, Nebraska, on Feb. 2, you can also catch a special screening put on by the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

No. 2 among the resolutions: Sign our petition asking that major independent fueling retailers like Costco and Walmart make ethanol available at their locations.

No. 3: Shopping for a new or used vehicle? Look for one that’s branded as flex-fuel. Then you’ll know it’s ready to rock with ethanol blends.

No. 4: Come up with your own idea about how you can promote fuel choice in the new year. Something that means a lot to you.

Go to the page on our website for the full list of resolutions, then share your pledge on social media.

Thanks, and Happy New Year! Let’s all work together in 2015 to make a diversified transportation fuel market one step closer to reality.

 

 

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Meet the PUMP players: Phil and Cheryl Near, selling ethanol as God’s work

One of the most compelling moments in the documentary PUMP comes when we’re introduced to Phil and Cheryl Near, who own two gas stations called Jump Start in Wichita, Kansas.

They’re not ordinary stations, however: They could be the fueling stations of the future, because they sell ethanol as well as traditional gasoline.

Phil Near, 51, has worked in the gasoline business virtually his entire adult life, and only a few years back discovered that there were alternatives, like ethanol. Now he and Cheryl offer it to customers, spreading the word about the benefits of fuel choice. “Once they try it, they usually come back and buy it again,” Phil says in the film.

More importantly, he says selling ethanol “is a moral obligation. We feel like we’re doing the Lord’s work.”

To learn more about the film, visit PumpTheMovie.com, and just in time for Christmas, you can give the gift of thought-provoking debate by pre-ordering your digital copy on iTunes prior to its Jan. 13 launch.

Until then, here’s a Q&A we did with Phil and Cheryl recently about their work and their passion:

Fuel Freedom: People who believe in alternatives to oil were caught off guard by the drop in oil prices. How do you handle it when people say: “Gas is so cheap, so why do we need to consider alternatives?”

Phil: People who have made the decision to use E85 are going to do that, as long as it doesn’t cost them more money. Some will use it no matter what. I think that having a lower price, where the economics are better for the consumer, will continue to drive new customers as they acquire cars that are flex vs. cars that are not. (The price) is inverted right now: It actually costs us more money than gasoline does now. So we’re losing margin today because we feel like we have to be competitive between the two products to maintain our customer base. That’s not necessarily a good place to be, but it’ just kind of a reality of the fuel business. … Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, and you don’t like it, but you’ve got to just fight the fight.

FF: How much do you pay for the ethanol you sell?

Phil: At one store we sell E85, and then we have the three grades of gasoline (87, 89 and 91). At the second store we have 87 and 91, then we have E15, E30 and E85. Our cost today on unleaded is a little over $2, retails $2.28, which is an abnormally large margin because the price is falling faster at the rack than the street, but it’s catching up. E85, we’re matching the unleaded price, $2.28. But it’s costing us about 15 cents a gallon more than that.

FF: What needs to happen to move the needle to create more flex-fuel vehicles, or create more stations?

Cheryl: One of the big things is education. My daughter had a car worked on at a dealership in town. I was talking to some of the service guys … and I talked about what we do, (that) we sell E85. And this guy goes, “Oh, I tell all my customers, ‘Don’t put E85 in your car. It’s bad for your car; it burns hotter.’ “ And I go, ‘Well, actually, it burns cooler, and higher octane is good for your car.’ “ But the oil companies have spent so much money with all this negative propaganda, and a lot of people have fallen into it. Car dealerships are the worst. They are telling their people not to use E85 in their flex-fuel vehicles, from the experiences that I’ve had.

FF: It’s amazing that a dealership would tell someone not to put E85 in a flex-fuel vehicle when it’s built to run on it.

Cheryl: And in the state of Kansas, there’s a $750 tax credit, if you use 500 gallons in a calendar year. And the dealerships aren’t telling people, they’re not promoting that. So people could be using E85 and getting that tax credit, and they’re just leaving it on the table, because the dealerships – whether they don’t know about it, or they just don’t want to tell people about it – it’s not being promoted.

FF: In the film you talk about selling ethanol being “the Lord’s work.” What does that mean to you?

Phil: At one time I had one of the largest fuel-distribution companies in the Midwest (Crescent Oil Co.). And it really wasn’t until I was out of that company that I understood how much control not only do the oil companies have on what happens here in the U.S., but how much control there is worldwide on energy. And I have a real passion for the fact that I feel like our great country is being stripped of its wealth for energy, and our jobs are going away. We’re right on the edge of Oklahoma, so during the oil heyday, we saw what that did economically for the communities and the people. And when the oil business went away, it really damaged a lot of towns in Oklahoma, and southern Kansas, and Texas. Back in 2006, I started learning a little bit about E85 and kind of the push, with a few ethanol plants being built in the Midwest. I saw what it does as far as creating opportunities. In small towns, these rural towns where these plants are being built, it’s a major impact on the communities.

But what most people don’t even think about every time they fill their car up with gas is, we’re sending the money we pay for energy out of our country. I call it “stripping the wealth.” Obviously, renewables is what I really feel like we’re supposed to be doing. Obviously it’s better for the economy, it’s better for the environment. We’re stewards of this Earth, and we need to be taking care of it. Oil is dirty energy; coal is dirty energy. These things that pollute the environment, as well as really hurt the financial position of our great country.

Cheryl: As a female and a mother, my biggest fear is that we’ll be a generation (or maybe the next generation) that completely depletes all of the fossil-fuel reserves, and then we’re leaving great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, in a mess. This generation, if we don’t start working on this, we’re leaving a really big mess for future generations. I really worry about that. In the Bible, it says we’re supposed to be stewards of the Earth. God left it for us to take care of. I say it in the documentary: “I think we’re messing up.” I don’t think we’re doing a very good job.

Phil: I was taught something that really hit home, and that was: You can’t create energy; you can only transfer energy. Only the Lord created energy. And whether you transfer it from oil, or from wind or solar, or ethanol, from corn or whatever you may, we’re all missing the boat. It’s all transfer, it’s not created.

Cheryl: That actually came from my father (Ray Jones), who’s an engineer. But he was teaching us that: He said, ‘You can’t make energy, you transfer energy. And you lose a little energy every time you transfer it.’ We’d never really heard that before. We were kind of fascinated by that.

Phil: He was one of the design engineers on the NASA moon buggy; he was a pretty smart cat. But he taught us that. And every source (of energy) was one the Lord gave us.

I spent my whole career in the industry, and most people don’t stop and think, and I didn’t for a long time, that our economic model for the world is all controlled by energy. Everything. You can’t get food without energy, you can’t move goods and services. Everything is driven off energy, and we’ve been sending soldiers to war for a long time to protect energy that we don’t even own.

“Natural Gas: The Fracking Fallacy” — a debate over the recent article in Nature

Nature ChartT’was the week before Christmas, a night during Chanukah and a couple of weeks before Kwanzaa, when, all through the nation, many readers more interested in America’s energy supply than in the fate of Sony’s “The Interview,” were stirring before their non-polluting fireplaces (I wish). They were trying to grasp and relish the unique rhetorical battle between The University of Texas (UT), the EIA and the recent December article in Nature, titled “Natural Gas: The Fracking Fallacy,” by Mason Inman.

Let me summarize the written charges and counter charges between a respected journal, university and government agency concerning the article. It was unusual, at times personal and often seemingly impolite.

Unusual, since a high-ranking federal official in the EIA responded directly to the article in Nature, a well-thought of journal with an important audience, but relatively minimal circulation. His response was, assumedly, based on a still-unfinished study by a group of UT scholars going through an academic peer review process. The response was not genteel; indeed, it was quite rough and tough.

Clearly, the stakes were high, both in terms of ego and substance. As described in Nature, the emerging study was very critical of EIA forecasts of natural gas reserves. Assumedly EIA officials were afraid the article, which they believed contained multiple errors and could sully the agency’s reputation. On the other hand, if it was correct, the UT authors would be converted into courageous, 21st century versions of Diogenes, searching for energy truths. The article would win something like The Pulitzer, EIA would be reprimanded by Congress and the UT folks would secure a raise and become big money consultants to a scared oil and gas industry.

Just what did the Nature article say? Succinctly: The EIA has screwed up. Its forecasts over-estimate America’s natural gas reserves by a significant amount. It granted too much weight to the impact of fracking and not enough precision to its analysis of shale play areas as well as provide in-depth resolution and examination of the sub areas in major shale plays. Further, in a coup de grace, the author of the Nature piece apparently, based on his read of the UT study, faults the EIA for “requiring” or generally placing more wells in non-sweet-spot areas, therefore calculating more wells than will be developed by producers in light of high costs and relatively low yields. Succinctly, the EIA is much too optimistic about natural gas production through 2040. UT, according to Nature, suggests that growth will rise slowly until early in the next decade and then begin to decline afterwards through at least 2030 and probably beyond.

Neither Wall Street nor producers have reacted in a major way to the Nature article and the still (apparently) incomplete UT analysis. No jumping out of windows! No pulling out hairs! Whatever contraction is now being considered by the industry results from consideration of natural gas prices, the value of the dollar, consumer demand, the slow growth of the economy and surpluses.

Several so-called experts have responded to the study in the Journal piece. Tad Patzek, head of the UT Austin department of petroleum and geosystems, engineers and “a member of the team,” according to the Journal, indicated that the results are “bad news.” The push to extract shale gas quickly and export, given UT’s numbers, suggests that “we are setting ourselves up for a major fiasco.” Economist and Professor Paul Stevens from Chatham House, an international think tank, opines “if it begins to look as if it’s going to end in tears in the U.S., that would certainly have an impact on the enthusiasm (for exports) in different parts of the word.”

Now, generally, a bit over the top, provocative article in a journal like Nature commending someone else’s work would have the author of the article and UT principal investigators jumping with joy. The UT researchers would have visions of more grants and, if relevant, tenure at the University. The author would ask for possible long-term or permanent employment at Nature or, gosh, maybe even the NY Times. Alas, not to happen! The UT investigators joined with the EIA in rather angry, institutional and personal responses to the Journal. Both the EIA and UT accused Nature of intentionally “misconstruing data and “inaccurate…distorted reporting.”

Clearly, from the non-scholarly language, both institutions and their very senior involved personnel didn’t like the article or accompanying editorial in Nature. EIA’s Deputy Administrator said that the battle of forecasts between the EIA and UT, pictured in the Journal, was imagined and took both EIA’s and UT’s initiatives out of context. He went on to indicate that both EIA’s and UT efforts are complementary, and faulted Nature for not realizing that EIA’s work reflected national projections and UT’s only four plays. Importantly, the Deputy suggested that beyond area size and method of counting productivity, lots of other factors like well spacing, drilling costs, prices and shared infrastructure effect production. They were not mentioned as context or variables in the article.

The principal investigators from UT indicated that positing a conflict between the EIA and themselves was just wrong. “The EIA result is, in fact, one possible outcome of our model,” they said. The Journal author “misleads readers by suggesting faults in the EIA results without providing discussion on the importance of input assumptions and output scenarios. “Further, the EIA results were not forecasts but reference case projections. The author used the Texas study, knowing it was not yet finished, both as to design and peer review. Adding assumed insult to injury, it quoted a person from UT, Professor Patzek, more times than any other. Yet, he was only involved minimally in the study and he, according to the EIA, has been and is a supporter of peak oil concepts, thus subject to intellectual conflict of interests.

Nature, after receiving the criticism from UT and EIA, stood its ground. It asserted that it combined data and commentary from the study with interviews of UT personal associated with the study. It asked for but only received one scenario on gas plays by EIA — the reference case. It was not the sinner but the sinned against.

Wow! The public dialogue between UT, the EIA and Nature related to the article was intense and, as noted earlier, unusual in the rarefied academically and politically correct atmosphere of a university, a federal agency and a “scientific” journal. But, to the participants’ credit, their willingness to tough it out served to highlight the difficulty in making forecasts of shale gas reserves, in light of the multitude of land use, geotechnical, economic, environmental, community and market variables involved. While it is not necessary or easy to choose winners or losers in the dialogue, because of its “mince no words” character, it, hopefully, will permit the country, as a whole, to ultimately win and develop a methodology to estimate reserves in a strategic manner. This would be in the public interest as the nation and its private sector considers expanding the use of natural gas in transportation, converting remaining coal-fired utilities to environmentally more friendly gas-powered ones and relaxing rules regulating natural gas exports. We remain relying on guesstimates concerning both supply and demand projections. Not a good place to be in when the stakes are relatively high with respect to the health and well-being of the nation.

On a personal note, the author of the article in Nature blamed, in part, the EIA’s inadequate budget for what he suggested were the inadequacies of the EIA’s analysis. Surprise, given what the media has often reported as the budget imperialism of senior federal officials, the Deputy Administrator of EIA, in effect, said hell no, we had and have the funds needed to produce a solid set of analyses and numbers, and we did. Whether we agree with his judgments or not, I found his stance on his budget refreshing and counterintuitive.