“Why is it that we hear every day some new story about Elon Musk’s electric car, about Clean Energy Fuel’s efforts to build a CNG highway, or about some laboratory breakthrough that is at last going to bring us cellulosic ethanol, yet with methanol now cheaper than gasoline, you still never hear anything about it?”
That’s the question I posed to the three-member panel while serving as moderator for the wrap-up session at the 2014 Methanol Policy Forum in Washington last week. The sponsors were the Methanol Institute, the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) and the Energy Security Council.
Anne Korin, co-director of IAGS, who earlier had moderated an even bigger panel that included former U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and former Ambassador to the European Union Boyden Gray, had a very unusual answer. “If I may be permitted to be a bit cynical here,” she said, “I think the reason may be because methanol doesn’t require any subsidies.” The implication, of course, is that those who come to Washington begging for money receive a lot more attention from Senators and Congressmen than those who don’t.
The question of politics versus economics had been raised at the outset of the daylong conference by Korin’s co-director at IAGS, Gal Luft, in his opening remarks. “We’ve all heard this business about the circular firing squad and how the various alternatives to foreign oil shouldn’t be fighting each other,” he told the audience of about 400. “But you have to acknowledge the importance of what goes on in Washington. You can’t just talk about production ― you need money. If you’re not at the table, that means you’re probably on the menu.
Luft showed a chart illustrating that while corn ethanol production exceeds methanol production by a factor of only 5-to-1 (14 billion gallons/year as compared with 2 bg/yr), the amount of money spent lobbying for ethanol is 50-to-1 (less than $100,000 vs. $5 million). “When you add in the politics of the farm belt, it’s probably closer to 100-to-1,” he added.
So was anyone discouraged? Not at all. The news from industry executives is that methanol production is ramping up everywhere due to the bonanza of the fracking revolution. It seems like only a matter of time before the idea of replacing large portions of our fuel imports with domestically produced methanol begins to command attention.
“In the past decade we closed down five methanol plants in the U.S. and moved them all to China,” John Floren, CEO of Methenex told the gathering of 400 at the Capital Hilton. “The price of gas had become just too high. Now we’ve moved two plants back from Chile and are looking at a third relocation. We’ve got 1000 people working on our Louisiana site. The chemical industry is starting to build as well.”
Tim Vail, the CEO of G2X, another methanol producer, had a similar take. “The U.S. is a great place to invest right now,” he told the audience. “The argument was always that you had to go to the ends of the earth to build methanol plants because that gas wasn’t available here. Now all that has changed. Our big worry is labor shortages but the construction industry is responding to our needs. It takes away a lot of anxiety about having your assets appropriated by other countries. China may seem like a good place to invest, but can you really trust the rule of law?”
Philip Lewis, chief technology officer of Zero Emission Energy Plants (ZEEP) was equally upbeat. “I think the whole shale thing is being underestimated,” he said at the close of the morning session. “It’s another industrial revolution. And it won’t happen anywhere else because we have the thing that makes it work – private ownership of the resource. In France, the government owns all the mineral rights and no one wants drilling on their land.”
But governments do have control over other things in this country and there was some questioning of whether federal agencies will be receptive to methanol as a fuel substitute or additive. Matt Brusstar, deputy director of the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory, claimed that his agency had been in the lead of methanol development for 30 years. “Charlie Grady, who was in our department, was a big supporter of methanol,” said Brusstar. “He even wrote a book about it.” (Unfortunately, a Google search for Charlie Grady and methanol turns up no mention of Grady or his book.) Patrick Davis, the director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Department of Energy, was even less encouraging. “The Office of Science does not currently have any projects to create methanol as an end fuel,” he said. “It could take a decade to sell enough methanol-compatible vehicles before a widespread distribution network would be feasible.”
When I queried Brusstar about Robert Zubrin’s documentation of the multi-thousand-dollar fines that the EPA is imposing for unauthorized conversions of engines to methanol, [See “Making the Case for Mars and Methanol,” Feb. 11] several government officials, plus Fuel Freedom Foundation director of research Mike Jackson, argued that faulty conversions can increase air pollution.
Despite the notable lack of enthusiasm from government agencies, however, there was a strong sense among the rank-and-file that methanol may be about to find a place in the sun. “This is a much bigger crowd than we’ve ever had,” said one veteran of previous conferences. “It’s a very exciting time for methanol.”