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Self-driving cars

It seems like a kind of Hollywood fantasy — autonomous little roadsters scooting in and out of traffic, breathlessly avoiding collisions and getting to their destination before anyone else.

Then again, it seems like the inevitable. If computers can perform medical diagnoses, accomplish instant translations for tourists and power Martian rovers, what’s so complicated about driving a car?

The self-driving car has gotten a lot of publicity lately. Google has a demonstration project and there have been the usual speculations about how long before self-drivers become a common sight. Four states have passed legislation allowing their operation and this month self-driving cars received the ultimate accolade of any new technology by being opposed by the Ralph Nader’s Consumer Watchdog, thereby joining fracking, nuclear power, GMO foods and other technological advances as being opposed by the Naderites.

Yet in truth, the idea of self-driving vehicles has been around for a long, long time. Experiments go back as far back as the 1920s. Engineers tried burying electric cables beneath the road to send signals that would keep cars on track. With the development of computers, however, research switched to autonomous vehicles with a dozen auto manufacturers and universities doing serious work.

In 1995, Carnegie Mellon University built an autonomous vehicle that traveled 3,100 miles cross-country for the “No Hands Across America” tour, with only minimal human intervention. In 2005, a Google vehicle equipped with 3D cameras, radar and a software package called Google Chauffeur won a $2 million prize in a Grand Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2010, four self-driving vehicles designed at the University of Parma, Italy duplicated Marco Polo’s expedition by driving from Italy to China with only occasional intervention by their human drivers. Google’s fleet of a dozen self-driving cars has now logged 700,000 miles on public highways without experiencing any trouble. The only accident occurred when one of them was read-ended by another vehicle at a traffic light.

Indeed, as things stand now, the biggest obstacle to widespread adoption may be the predictable human reluctance to have the wheel taken out of their hands. One poll in Germany found that while 22 percent of respondents had a positive attitude toward driverless cars, 44 percent were skeptical and 24 percent were actively hostile toward the idea.

So aside from inspiring a hundred high school science projects and proving that computer geeks can do just about anything, what would be the advantage of self-driving vehicles? Here are a few of the possibilities:

Greater fuel efficiency: Advocates say that the precision achieved by automated vehicles in evening out traffic flows would cut down on national gasoline consumption. Instead of some cars dawdling in the fast lane while others weave in and out, traffic would follow a much more orderly pattern. Estimates are that a large fleet of self-driving vehicles could cut national fuel consumption by as much as 10 percent.

The advance of non-gasoline fuel systems: Since the experiments with trolley-like electronic tracks of the 1920s, self-driving systems have been associated with electric cars. While it will be perfectly possible to mount self-driving equipment on a gasoline-powered car, the “wave of the future” seems to be associated with non-gasoline vehicles. Google’s self-driver runs on electricity as do nearly all other experimental models.

Fewer accidents: Although humans may be reluctant to admit it, the vast majority of accidents are caused by driver error. The 360-degree visibility and unblinking vigilance of self-drivers could be a vast improvement. Many new cars are already beginning to incorporate some of the features with rear-view cameras and automatic braking. The 2014 Mercedes S-class offers options for self-parking, automatic accident avoidance and driver fatigue detection. One website that projects the self-driving future even suggests that the main job losses would be among: 1) hospital emergency room services, 2) auto repair shops and 3) trial lawyers specializing in auto accidents!

Peer-to-peer sharing of traffic information: The end point of self-driving would be a peer-to-peer information-sharing system whereby individual vehicles would be warned of congestion and traffic tie-ups and routed away from them. A 2010 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that an amazing 80 percent of all traffic accidents could be avoided by such a peer-to-peer system that smooth out traffic patterns and prevent cars from bumping into each other on congested highways.

More efficient traffic lights: How much time and gas is wasted by cars waiting for the light to change when no cars are coming in the crossing lane? Computerized systems linked to self-drivers could do wonders to hasten traffic flow and ease the time needlessly spent waiting for red lights.

Driving services for people who cannot drive: Many elderly and handicapped people cannot drive under ordinary circumstances, but could manage a vehicle in which they program it to tell it where they want to go. One of Google’s first early adapters was Steve Mahan, a California resident who is legally blind. This YouTube video shows him running a series of errands through his neighborhood, including a visit to a drive-in taco stand. All this might seem that it would increase driving and add to the nation’s fuel consumption until you consider that many of these people are already serviced by elaborate jitney systems that spend a great deal of time making empty runs. Once again, self-drivers would add precision and efficiency to the system.

Mass public transit  the possibility of a whole new personal mobility system: At the end point of this new technology is the vision of a whole new transportation system where far fewer vehicles would be needed to get people where they want to go. Driving this vision is the statistic that the average car is parked 90 percent of the time. If these vehicles could be put to more efficient use — something along the lines of bike-sharing on city streets  then the need for vehicles might be drastically reduced. Particularly in urban settings, more efficient matching of vehicles and passengers would cut down on the need for street parking. Uber, the San Francisco company that matches passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire, is now operating in 200 cities in 42 countries around the globe. The fuel savings it creates through matching efficiency are phenomenal.

Much of the fruits of these innovations are still in the future, but don’t put it past innovators like Google to make it happen quickly. In 2012 the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles issued the country’s first license to a Toyota Prius modified with Google technology. Florida and Michigan have also issued permits for road testing. Next January, Google will launch 200 gumdrop-shaped vehicles completely void of steering wheel, brake and gas pedal that will begin cruising the streets of Mountain View, Calif., in an experiment supervised by the California DMV.

The future may be closer than we think.

Will Pittsburgh be the center of a CNG revolution?

The EQT compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station in the Strip District of Pittsburgh may one day be remembered as the place where the CNG revolution began.

Located just north of downtown, The Strip is a gritty combination of commercial warehouses and aging factories being converted by gentrifying young professionals into housing. Somehow, that’s turned out to be the perfect combination for pioneering a market for CNG vehicles.

In 2011, EQT, a $14 billion gas company operating in the Marcellus Shale formation, opened up the first public-access CNG station in the Pittsburgh area. To date, more than half of the nation’s CNG stations have been private affairs designed to service fleet vehicles. UPS, FedEx, and Ryder Trucks have been in the lead.

But EQT saw a wider opportunity. Right away the company suggested that the many small companies in The Strip start converting to natural gas. Then it started targeting the growing number of local nonprofits. EQT also counted on the fact that some young professionals would be adventurous enough to experiment with a new fuel source. Finally, it set an example by converting 15% of its own fleet to CNG.

It worked. Two years later, EQT has been forced to add four new nozzles and is now planning a further expansion. The company is also working with various Pittsburgh organizations, public and private, to expand the reach of CNG throughout the region.

EQT is not the only competitor in the field. Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the nation’s second largest gas producer, plans to commit $1 billion by 2021 to encourage CNG adoption in western Pennsylvania. Southwestern Energy, the nation’s fourth largest gas producer, is also planning a similar initiative.

If all this is happening in Pittsburgh, it’s no accident. The city has a long tradition of developing fossil fuels, stretching back to the coalmines of the 19th century and Col. Drake’s oil well in nearby Titusville. But in this latest development, the mighty Marcellus is playing the leading role.

Last month, the output in the Marcellus surpassed 15 billion cubic feet per day, an increase of 400% over the last four years, according to figures released by the Energy Information Administration.

Moreover, production does not show any signs of slowing down. As the EIA reported last week:

The rig count in the Marcellus Region has remained steady at around 100 rigs over the past 10 months. Given the continued improvement in drilling productivity, which EIA measures as new-well production per rig, EIA expects natural gas production in the Marcellus Region to continue to grow. With 100 rigs in operation and with each rig supporting more than 6 million cubic feet per day in new-well production each month, new Marcellus Region wells coming online in August are expected to deliver over 600 million cubic feet per day (MMcf/d) of additional production. This production from new wells is more than enough to offset the anticipated drop in production that results from existing well decline rates, increasing the production rate by 247 MMcf/d.

In addition, the EIA recently projected that consumption of natural gas in the transport sector will rise by a factor of 20 over the next 25 years.

Natural Gas Consumption

Yet even the EIA’s optimistic predictions do not envision a very big role for natural gas in automobiles. Rail freight plays a bigger part than that envisioned for automobiles, which are grouped under the category of “light-duty vehicles.”

All this shows that natural gas is never going to make any real headway in substituting for foreign oil unless we start converting it to liquid fuel – methanol, ethanol, or butanol – that can be easily slotted into our current gasoline infrastructure.

But the potential is there. Last month Yuhuang Chemical, a subsidiary of the $5 billion Shandong Yuhuang Chemical Co., Ltd., of Shandong Province, China, announced plans to invest $1.85 billion in a methanol plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana that will produce 2 million tons of methanol annually by 2018. Right now, 80% of that methanol is targeted for export to a world market that currently consumes 65 million tons per year.

But if we keep working on methanol and ethanol conversion, more than a small portion of that might end up making it to that gas station in Pittsburgh. Or maybe someone will be inspired to build a methanol conversion plant right in the heart of the Marcellus itself.

Winston, what would you do concerning natural gas?

Where is Churchill when we need him? How many psychobabble articles and cable commentary about Putin and Russia could we have done without by just remembering good old Winnie’s marvelous, insightful quote in 1939? It’s as near perfection as we are going to get in trying to understand Mr. Putin and Russia. Both are “riddle[s] wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian [and Putin’s] national interest.” (The word Putin is my addition — I am sure Churchill would not have minded.) What does Putin want? Apparently not only full control of Crimea, but also instability in Eastern Ukraine.

Okay, now some of you readers are saying the same about the U.S. We seem to accept Russia’s takeover of Crimea…ah, Russia had it once anyway and it has a big naval base there. Sounds vaguely historically familiar. What about the other place, they say. What was its name? Guantanamo and Cuba! Oh, no?! Please let’s focus on Eastern Ukraine.

Forget consistency and remember Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Consistency [in foreign policy] is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Again, pardon the added-on term, foreign policy.)

Now how does oil come into all of this? None of us, not just President Obama, want to fight a war over the Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine or Crimea. If he were running again, Obama would probably borrow from Woodrow Wilson’s campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” at least big wars, particularly with corrupt nations some of which have a history of fascism..

Alright, let’s use tough energy sanctions — oil and natural gas. if the regulations concerning sanctions were tough, they might really hurt Russia’s economy and its ability to move out of the economic doldrums. Let’s hit them where it hurts! No, apparently, we will not, at least for now. Why? Well, Western Europe and our new ally, the Ukraine, depend on natural gas. Without it, both would be in for cold winters and probably a severe industrial recession. So what did our leaders do? They excluded natural gas from the list of recent sanctions. I suspect they, also, will allow Russia and the West to continue to trade in oil not involving new technology from the West.

Absence of natural gas in Europe and the Ukraine (and probably other Eastern Europe nations) is a plus for the U.S. We can make it up by selling natural gas. Isn’t what’s good for the U.S. bad for Russia and Mr. Putin?

Maybe, maybe not…or maybe the view that the U.S can be savior of Western Europe is a myth. Or maybe it’s just too complex for political leaders to grab hold of instantly.

Some verities to deal with:

1. Even with the current rush to permit the export of natural gas, before terminals get built and tankers are ready and environmental issues are disposed of, the first large volume of natural gas would not reach Ukraine or Western Europe until 2016 or later.

2. The U.S., despite the increase in shale development and natural gas production, still imports natural gas to meet domestic supplies — about 12.5% in total. Like big oil, exports of natural gas are to a large degree being sought to secure a higher prices overseas than in the U.S. Hurting Russia for U.S producers is a side show.

3. Russia, ostensibly, can produce natural gas and ship it by pipeline, rail or boat cheaper than we can. According to experts, the cost of U.S.-produced, transported and sold natural gas in Europe and the Ukraine is and will be much higher than Russian-produced and transported natural gas sold globally. Note in this context that Russia just cemented a $4 billion deal for Russia to sell oil to China. Will the Europeans and Ukrainians want higher-priced natural gas from the U.S.?

4. Oh, I almost forgot. Just last winter, U.S. residents in many states, particularly eastern states, nearly froze because of shortages of natural gas resulting from lack of adequate pipeline capacity and pipeline congestion. Consequently, the gas they secured came at very high prices. If ports can be built, pipeline amendments for the east coast cannot be far behind and probably should come first, if money is tight. Can we afford both, given uncertainties concerning price of natural gas and cost of drilling in tight areas? Sure. But the tradeoffs need to be carefully balanced by policymakers and the long term for investors must look bright.

It’s a puzzlement. Our policy seen by many nonpartisan observers as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery…” I will know sanctions are real when gas is included. What I won’t know is whether it will make a difference to Russia, given the fungibility of import-needy nations like China. Sanctions may bring both China and Russia something that communism has failed to do — build back a broken alliance. What I also don’t know is whether the growth of exports will significantly raise natural gas prices over time in the U.S. and lower the price differential with oil, and its derivative gasoline. If it does, producers and distributors may get rich, but opportunities for something I do care about — the development and widespread use of natural gas-based ethanol as a replacement fuel — may be impeded significantly. If this occurs, the environment, our economy and low- and moderate-income Americans may be worse off for it. Policymaking in today’s world is difficult and is something you often cannot fully learn in school.

Chinese company to build methanol complex in Louisiana

Yuhuang Chemical Inc, a North American subsidiary of Shandong Yuhuang Chemical Co Ltd, is trying to cash in on the low shale gas and energy costs in Louisiana by producing methanol for the growing Chinese market

Optimist and pessimist, the Oil & Gas Journal and replacement fuels

“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds and the pessimist fears this is true” — James Branch Cabell. Or, as I once said in a presentation in China after Tiananmen Square, “a strategic optimist is a realist with brains.”

I live with the hope we can do better as nation with respect to the environment, our economy and the quality of life choices open to Americans, particularly low- and moderate-income Americans. But I worry that given the ideological and related political divisiveness among us, we may not.

In this context, after reading the recent article, “SAFE: Report’s ‘flash points’ emphasize US transportation fuel problem” in the Oil & Gas Journal, often seen by some as a mouthpiece for the oil industry, my thoughts reflected both optimism and pessimism. I concluded that I was a realist tempered by experience (and hopefully with a brain). Okay, what did the piece suggest that stimulated my mental and emotional adrenaline? Two or three quotes used by the author Nick Snow, respected Washington editor of OGJ, taken from a national conference convened by Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE):

“A proliferation of global oil geopolitical ‘flash points’ (e.g., conflicts in countries or within countries that limit or could limit the supply of oil) makes it even more urgent for the U.S. to aggressively reduce its dependence on crude oil for transportation fuels…If we could be only 65% dependent on oil for our transportation fuels by 2025 instead of 90%, it would make a tremendous difference…We also need better politics developed by people who can find win-win situations so we can move forward…We all agree that we need to diversify our transportation sources away from oil.”

Nick Snow is no blazing liberal. According to his resume, Mr. Snow has spent 30 years or so as a journalist covering oil issues, many of those for media outlets friendly to oil interests (e.g., Oil Daily).

Have we reached nirvana? Did the article in the OGJ signal that big or small oil companies will soon announce their commitment to replacement fuels, like natural gas-based ethanol and methanol? Their support, given the fact that some oil companies already own significant natural gas fields, could be important from a public policy and an “on the ground production and distribution” perspective.

When I was a kid, older members of my family, if they wanted something but knew it was impossible to secure, would say, “I should live so long.” In some respects, while I’m surprised by the selected quotes used in the article by Mr. Snow, I doubt it heralds an epiphany by leaders of the oil industry or their companies.

Why am I a wannabe optimist but a realistic pessimist? Oil companies’ primary behavior over the past decade or more has been to oppose the development of most replacement fuels, FFVs and open fuel markets. Sometimes they have done this through other organizations that they influence or control, and sometimes directly. Clearly, gas station franchises granted by oil companies remain tied to a “just say no” position on replacement fuels, or a back- or side-of-the-station mandate concerning location of replacement-fuel pumps. For the most part, their reaction to “flash points” has been “drill, baby, drill,” and their battle cry has been that only more drilling will make the nation oil independent. This is a curious stance, since companies are simultaneously seeking to increase their ability to export globally. America still imports about a third of its oil, while retail prices for gasoline at most stations remain high.

I’m afraid that the OGJ piece by Snow is not a harbinger of good tidings concerning oil company endorsement of replacement fuels — at least any time soon. Rather, the article reflects a willingness of the author to honestly describe a major issue facing the nation, that is, the disproportionate share of oil in transportation fuels. Regrettably, excluded from the piece is a narrative about the fact that oil converted to gasoline has a significant negative effect on the environment, and that oil imports still take a toll on the economy. Replacement fuels would address security, environmental and economic issues, and related national objectives in a much more positive way.

I have a vested interest in remembering the famous Andrews Sisters. How many of you remember them? They played in my uncle’s band for a short time. So let me end, somewhat inappropriately, using the last stanza of one of their hit tunes “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” by composer Sammy Fain. I am sure neither the sisters nor Sammy would mind. With respect to the oil companies, “I am aware. My heart is a sad affair. There is much disillusion there. But I can dream, can’t I?”

Dreaming is about all you can do now, with respect to getting oil companies to develop, or support the development of, flexible replacement fuels. Maybe someday!

From lab to market, it’s a long haul

The Energy Information Administration has done us an enormous favor by producing a simple chart to make sense of where the development of energy storage technology is going. Energy storage, as the EIA defines it, includes heat storage, and a quick look at the chart reveals that those forms that involve sheer physical mechanisms – pumped storage, compressed air and heat reservoirs – are much further along than chemical means of storage, particularly batteries.

The EIA divides the development of technologies into three phases – “research and development,” “demonstration and deployment” and “commercialization.” It also ranks them according to a factor that might be called “chances for success,” which is calculated by a multiple of capital requirements times “technological risk.”

As it turns out, only two technologies that could contribute to transportation are in the deployment stage while three more are in early development. The two frontrunners are sodium-sulfur and lithium-based batteries while the three in early stages are flow batteries, supercapacitors and hydrogen. The EIA refers to hydrogen as one of the ways of storing other forms of energy generation, particularly wind and solar. But hydrogen is also being deployed in hydrogen in hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles that have already been commercialized.

Other than building huge pumped-storage reservoirs or storing compressed air in underground caverns, the chemistry of batteries is the most attractive means of storing electricity, which is the most useful form of energy. Batteries have always had three basic components, the anode, which stores the positive charge, the cathode, which stores the negative charge, and the electrolyte, which carries the charge between them. Alexander Volta designed the first “Voltaic pile” in 1800 by submerging zinc and silver in brine. Since then, battery improvements have involved finding better materials for all three components.

Lead-acid batteries have become the elements of choice in conventional batteries because the elements are cheap and plentiful. But lead is one of the heaviest common elements and becomes impractical when it comes to loading them aboard a vehicle.

The great advantage of lithium-ion batteries has been their light weight. The lithium substitutes for metal in both anode and cathode, mixing with carbon and iron phosphate to create the two charges. Li-ion, of course, is the basis of nearly all consumer electronics and has proved light and powerful enough to power golf carts. The question being posed by Elon Musk is whether they can be ramped up to power a Tesla Model S that can do zero-to-60 with a range of 300 miles.

Tesla is not planning any technological breakthrough, but will use brute force to try to scale up. Enlarging li-ion batteries tends to shorten their life so the Tesla will pack together thousands of small ones no bigger than a AA that will be linked by a management system that coordinates their charge and discharge. Musk is betting that economies of scale at his “Gigafactory” will lower costs so that the Model X can sell for $35,000. According to current plants, the Gigafactory will be producing more lithium-ion batteries than are now produced in the entire world.

In the sodium-sulfur battery, molten sodium serves as the anode while liquid sodium serves as the cathode. An aluminum membrane serves as the electrolyte. This creates a very high energy density and high discharge rate of about 90 percent. The problem is that the battery must be kept at a very high temperature, around 300 degrees Celsius, in order to liquefy its contents. A sodium-sulfur battery was tried in the Ford “Ecostar” demonstration vehicle as far back as 1991, but it proved too difficult to maintain the temperature.

Flow batteries represent a new approach where both the anode and cathode are liquids instead of solids. Recharging takes place by replacing the electrolyte. In this way, flow batteries are often compared to fuel cells, where a steady flow of hydrogen or methane is used to generate a current. The great advantage of flow batteries is that they can be recharged quickly by replacing the electrolyte, rather than taking up to 10 hours to recharge, as with, say, the Chevy Volt. So far flow batteries have relatively low energy density, however, and their use may be limited to stationary sources. A German-made vanadium-flow battery called CellCube was just installed by Con Edison as a grid-enhancement feature in New York City this month.

Supercapacitors use various materials to expand on the storage capacity devices in ordinary electric circuits. They have much shorter charge-and-discharge cycles but only achieve one-tenth of the energy density of conventional batteries. As a result, they cannot yet power vehicles on a stand-alone basis. However, supercapacitors are being used to capture braking energy in electric trams in Europe, in forklifts and hybrid automobiles. The Mazda6 has a supercapacitor that uses braking energy to reduce fuel consumption by 10 percent.

The concept of “storage” can be also be expanded to include hydrogen, since free hydrogen is not a naturally occurring element but can store energy from other sources such as wind and solar. That has always been the dream of renewable energy enthusiasts. The Japanese and Europeans are actually betting that hydrogen will prove to be a better alternative than the electric car. Despite the success of the Prius hybrid, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai (which is Korean) are putting more emphasis on their fuel cell models.

Finally, methanol can be regarded as an “energy storage” mechanism, since it too is not a naturally occurring resource but is a way to transmit the potential of our vast reserves of natural gas. Methanol proved itself as a gasoline substitute in an extensive experiment in California in the 1990s and currently powers a million cars in China. But it has not yet achieved the recognition of EVs and hydrogen – or even compressed natural gas – and still faces regulatory hurdles.

All these technologies offer the potential of severely reducing our dependence on foreign oil. All are making technical advances and all have promise. Let the competition begin.

The U.S. and China on methanol: Two roads converge

Nobel-Prize-winning chemist George Olah recently put methanol front and center again with a powerful Wall Street Journal editorial arguing for the conversion of carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants into methanol for use as a gasoline substitute in our car engines. Co-writing with University of Southern California trustee Chris Cox, Olah noted, “Thanks to recent developments in chemistry, a new way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol — a simple alcohol now used primarily by industry but increasingly attracting attention as transportation fuel — can now make it profitable for America and the world to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.”

The authors argued that President Obama’s recently announced policy of mandating carbon sequestration for emissions from coal plants wastes a potentially valuable resource. “At laboratories such as the University of Southern California’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute [founded by Olah], researchers have discovered how to produce methanol at significantly lower cost than gasoline directly from carbon dioxide. So instead of capturing and “sequestering” carbon dioxide — the Obama administration’s current plan is to bury it — this environmental pariah can be recycled into fuel for autos, trucks and ships.”

Olah, of course, has been the principal advocates of methanol since his publication of “Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy,” in 2006.

To date, he has been recommending our growing natural gas supplies as the principal feedstock for a methanol economy. But the emissions from the nation’s coal plants offer another possibility.

This is particularly important since indications are that the Environmental Protection’s Agency’s assumption that a regulatory initiative will “force” the development of carbon-sequestering technology may be mistaken. A recent report from Australia’s Global CCS Institute said that, despite widespread anticipation that carbon capture will play a leading role in reducing carbon emission, experimental efforts have actually been declining.

The problem is the laborious task of storing endless amounts of carbon dioxide in huge underground repositories plus the potential dangers of accidental releases, which have aroused public opposition. Olah and Cox write, “By placing the burden of expensive new carbon capture and sequestration technology on the U.S. alone, and potentially requiring steep cuts in domestic energy to conform to carbon caps, the proposal could send the U.S. economy into shock without making a significant dent in global emissions… In place of expensive mandates and wasteful subsidies, what is needed are powerful economic incentives. These incentives should operate not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well.”

All this brings into stark relief the diverging paths that China and the United States have taken in trying to find some alcohol-based fuels to substitute in gas tanks. While Olah has been advocating a transformation to a methanol economy in this country, China is actually much further down the road to developing its own methanol economy. There are now more than a million methanol cars on the road in China and estimates show the fuel substitutes for 5-8% of gasoline consumption — about the same proportion that corn ethanol provides in this country.

In this country, the proposal has been that we derive methanol from our now-abundant supplies of natural gas. California had 15,000 methanol cars on the road in 2003 but curtailed its experiment because gas supplies appeared to be too scarce and expensive! Instead, the main emphasis has been on tax incentives and mandates to promote corn ethanol.

China has vast shale gas supplies and could benefit from America’s fracking technology. We could benefit strongly from China’s greater experience in developing methanol cars. The pieces of the puzzle are all there. Perhaps Olah’s proposal may be the catalyst that puts them all together.

Ironically, all this began with a Chinese-American collaboration in 1996. At the time, China had little knowledge or interest in methanol but was persuaded by American scientists to give it a try. Ford provided a methanol engine and China began ramping up its methanol industry and substituting it for gasoline. As a result, China is now the world’s largest producer of methanol, with about one-quarter of the market.

A year ago the Chinese national government was about to mandate a 15% percent methanol standard for gasoline when it ran into opposition from executives in its oil industry. Those leaders have since been deposed, however, and the 15% mandate may go ahead this year. In the meantime, provincial governments  have developed their own standards, with the Shanxi province west of Beijing in the lead.

Ironically, because methanol is only half the price of gasoline, many local gas stations are diluting their gasoline with methanol anyway in order to shave their costs. As a 2011 Energy Policy article by Chi-jen Yang and Robert B. Jackson of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment reported, Private gasoline stations often blend methanol in gasoline without consumers’ knowledge… In fact, its illegal status makes methanol blending more profitable than it would be with legal standards. Illegally blended methanol content is sold at the same price as gasoline. If legalized, standard methanol gasoline would be required to be properly labeled and sold at a lower price than regular gasoline because of its reduced energy content. Such unannounced blending is now common in China.”

So both countries are feeling their way toward a methanol economy. As Olah points out, the problem in the U.S. is that the various advantages given to ethanol have not been extended to methanol.One means of addressing this inequity would be for Congress to pass the bipartisan Open Fuel Standard Act of 2013, which would put methanol, natural gas, and biodiesel on the same footing as ethanol (but without subsidies and without telling consumers which one to choose) for use in flex-fuel cars.

In China, the concern is about coal supplies but this could be alleviated with help from America’s fracking industry or by implementing Olah’s new technology for tapping coal exhausts.

Either way, the pieces are all there. It may be time to start putting them together.

And that’s the way it is or isn’t — stable oil and gas markets

“And that’s the way it is” was used by my favorite news anchor, Walter Cronkite, to sign off on his highly respected network news show. And that’s the way the content he generally delivered generally was — clear, factual, helpful. I have tried to apply Cronkitism to today’s media analyses and commentary on oil production and oil prices. The new assumed “way it is” regrettably sometimes seems like the way the journalist or his boss — whether print, TV or cable — wants it to be or hopes it will be. Frequently, partial sets of facts are marshaled to ostensibly determine clear cause and effect relationships but end up confusing issues and generating questions as to the author or speakers mastery of content and conclusions.

What’s a Cronkitist to do? I often look to The New York Times for the wisdom grail. Generally, it works. But, I must confess that a recent piece in the Times by outstanding journalist, Clifford Kraus, titled “Is Stability the New Normal?” Oct. 9 bothered me. I found its thesis that a new stability has arrived with respect to oil prices and by implication gas prices at the pump a bit too simple.

The author indicates that “predictions about oil and gas prices are precarious when there are so many political and security hazards. But it is likely that the world has already entered a period of relatively predictable crude prices…there are reasons to believe the inevitable tensions in oil-producing countries will be manageable over at least the next few years, because the world now has sturdier shock absorbers than at any time over at least the past decade.”

What are these absorbers? First, more oil production in the U.S., Canada, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, to balance the loss of exports from countries like Iran, Libya and, I assume, Venezuela and possibly Nigeria. Second, the continued spread of oil shale development throughout the world, including many non-Middle East or OPEC countries. Third, increased auto efficiency, conservation and lower demand for gas in the U.S. Finally, near the end of the article and not really seemingly central to the author’s stability argument natural gas becomes in part a hypothetical “if.” He notes that American demand for gasoline could drop below a half a billion barrels a day from already below peak consumption, if natural cheap gas replaces more oil as a transportation fuel. (At least he mentioned natural gas as a transportation fuel. Most media reports fail to tie natural gas to transportation) break open the champagne! Nirvana is near! Michael Lynch, a senior official at Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc., is quoted in the article, saying, “Stable oil prices could reduce future inflation rates and particularly curb transportation costs, helping to steady prices of food and construction materials that travel long distances…Lower inflation can also help reduce interest rates. By reducing uncertainty, investor and consumer confidence should both be increased, boosting higher spending and investment and thus economic growth.”

In the words of Oscar Hammerstein II, I want to be a cockeyed optimist…but something tells me to be at least a bit wary of a too-good-to-be-true scenario, one premised on a historically new relatively high price of oil per barrel (bbl.), just under $100 (the price is now about $105) and gas prices likely only modestly lower than they are now (the U.S. average is close to $3.50 a gallon)

So why be wary and worry?

1. The Times accepts the rapid significant growth in oil shale development and production too easily. Maybe they are right! Perhaps the oil shale train has left the station. But the growth of environmental opposition, particularly opposition to fracking, will likely slow it down until regulations perceived as reasonable by the industry and environmentalists are put in the books. Further, the often very early large expectations with respect to new pools of oil in places like the Monterey Shale, featured in media releases, have not panned out after later sophisticated analyses. Finally, the price of hard to get at oil may come in so high as to limit producer enthusiasm for new drilling.

2. The Times correctly suggests that the relationship between oil prices and gasoline costs may be less than thought conventionally. Lower oil costs in the U.S. do not necessarily trigger lower gasoline costs, and higher gasoline costs are not necessarily the result of higher oil costs per barrel

The Times credits the recent visible break in the relationship primarily to an abundance of oil linked to oil shale production in the U.S. and in many other countries and to falling demand for oil throughout the world, including China, to the lack of economic growth and higher efficiency of vehicles.

It’s more complicated. For example, price setting is affected in a major way by speculation in the financial community, and by oil producers and refiners who govern production and distribution availability. Respected analysts and political leaders suggest that companies base their decisions concerning price at least in part on market and profit assumptions. Fair. But, oil’s major derivative gasoline does not function in a free market, rather, it is a market controlled by oil companies. There is little competition from alternative fuels. Unfair and inefficient.

3. The quest for oil independence and the related justification for drilling lead the media to suggest and the public to believe that there is an equivalency between increased production of oil and closing the gap between what we consume and produce as a nation. Yes, we have reduced the gap — both demands have fallen and production has increased. But it is still around 6.0 to 6.5 million barrels per day. Yet, we continue to export nearly half of what we produce every day or nearly 4 million barrels. Our good friends, China and Venezuela, get 4% and 3% respectively. Companies may sing “God Bless America” while extracting, refining, exporting and importing oil, but theologically based patriotism doesn’t govern the oil market. Sorry, but global prices and profits have precedence. Remember the adage — “the business of business is business.”

4. A recently released Fuel Freedom Foundation paper suggests that energy independence is a misnomer. Based on its review of EIA data and projections through 2035, negative energy balances exist that never drop below a $300 billion deficit. If EIA data is to be believed, energy independence, Saudi America and control of our energy future are developments that will not occur anytime soon.

I am disappointed that natural gas as an alternative fuel seems more like an afterthought coming at the end of Kraus’s long piece. I am glad the author mentioned it but it seems at least a bit forced. The commentary was limited to natural gas and not its derivatives, ethanol and methanol, or, for that matter, other alternative fuels. Put another way, it seemed to assume a still very restricted fuel market. Opening up consumer choices at the pump is a key factor in stabilizing oil and gas markets. It also is a key factor achieving reduced prices at the pump for low and moderate income families; the former spending from 14-17% of their limited income on gasoline.