Bipolar, manic depressive and natural gas

Although a bit bipolar concerning the data, the editors of Real Clear Energy published a useful graph and narrative on Tuesday. It showed the slow, steady increase of natural gas use in the U.S. over the past few years. The graph and narrative noted a 33% increase in vehicle fuel consumption since 2007. More good news for those who support natural gas, given its ability to reduce GHG emissions: the editors reported that the T. Boone Pickens’ “Natural Gas Highway” appears to offer hope that the trend will continue upward. Indeed, the EIA indicates that natural gas will increasingly substitute for gasoline in the truck, bus and rail freight sectors. So much good news! However, don’t open the champagne yet!

Now the bad news! Despite the increasing popularity of natural gas, over the next 25 years, the editors suggest it will only replace or displace 3% of the nation’s oil budget. What a bummer! But, paraphrasing Frank Sinatra (the noted oil man turned singer), when you have “your chin on the ground, there’s a lot to be learned, so look around… [we’ve] got high hopes…all problems just a toy balloon, they’ll be bursted soon, they’re just bound to go pop”…cause we’ve got high hopes.

Thanks Frank. Now, back to the editors. They correctly advised their readers that we, as a nation, will “never make any real progress until we start using liquid methanol and ethanol in regular passenger cars.” I assume the editors mean that we should increase the amount of ethanol in our cars. All of us now use at least 10% ethanol when we fill-er-up. Some of us, if we are lucky and have a flex-fuel vehicle (over 17 million of us do, but likely don’t know it), can use E15 and E85, assuming we can find a station with the necessary pumps. With the exception of a few states, such pumps are relatively few and far between. Sales of E15 and E85 constitute only a small share of the fuel market.

Why? Neither ethanol not methanol is a perfect fuel. Yet, study after study indicates that, on most dimensions, they are better than gasoline. Both are cheaper, both are generally environmentally superior and both emit less GHG emissions. Competition with gasoline from both would allow the U.S. to become less dependent on oil imports and add to our nation’s security. Over time, opening fuel markets to consumers by adding choice would likely help stabilize, and even reduce, the price of gasoline and limit its frequent nonstructural cycles.

As a former dean of a major School of Public Policy, I would gladly supervise a Ph.D. thesis or an “independent” student study concerning consumer decisions relative to the purchase of gasoline vs. replacement fuels, particularly ethanol and the acquisition of new or the conversion of existing cars to FFV status. The student could start off with some reasonable, contextual assumptions and/or hypotheses. For example:

1. Consumer decisions about alternative fuels often must be speculative, given the fact that oil companies, most times, prohibit their franchises from adding a replacement fuel pump or require them to put the pump in a hidden sidebar location.

2. There are sufficient anecdotes that price management is also a barrier to the development of competitive fuel markets. Data descriptive of the life cycle of ethanol suggests that costs for production, distribution and sales would permit ethanol to compete well, price-wise, with gas. However, anecdotes suggest that producers, distributors, blenders and retail stations — including independent stations — often raise or lower the price of gasoline relative to replacement fuels, which often impedes real consumer choice. There are no angels here. Retail stations carrying E85 have been known to raise its price to capture extra revenue.

3. Although the gap is narrowing in light of technological improvements, replacement fuels, including ethanol, get less mileage per gallon than gasoline. But, as noted earlier, the costs at the pump, if recognized in the price per gallon, generally work out in favor of ethanol. However, consumers find the calculations difficult to make without the addition of simple signs at the pump, a willing and patient station attendant, or an app in your hand. As a rule of thumb, replacement fuels should be at least 22% cheaper than gasoline to cement the deal for a knowledgeable consumer.

4. Despite EPA studies and approvals to the contrary, groups mainly associated with, supported by or historically favorable to the oil industry have planted the worry seed in car owners’ minds. E15 and, likely E85, they say, will damage engines that are actually built to use both. Saying it often enough has likely made many consumers consciously or subconsciously avoid replacement fuels like ethanol. The best answer to bad speech — whether written or oral — is good speech. Yet, only a handful of writers, editors, TV and cable anchors have responded to negative stories and rumors about replacement fuel safety.

I could go on. But I am over my word limit. Thank you, Real Clear Energy, for making me manic depressive — my friends would say it’s a rather normal state. I hope the brief comments by your editors will be discussed over and over again by others and stimulate strategies to increase the use of natural gas based ethanol, and someday soon, the legalization of methanol.

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