When it comes to lighting our homes and powering our electronic devices, we’re so used to having a full menu of American-made resources, we’ve come to take it for granted. It’s about time we demand all-American fuel to power our vehicles. Read more
Combine the lyrics from 4 Non Blondes with the personal frustration suggested by the “it’s a puzzlement” comment from the King of Siam in “The King and I,” expressed when he was perplexed by a changing world, and you will understand why many are confused by three relatively recent actions that limit or impede the growth of alternative fuels.
Most advocates of consumer choice at the pump and the end of Big Oil’s near-monopoly concerning transportation fuel praised the president’s State of the Union address a couple of years ago. He proposed that the nation wean itself off of oil. Wow, some fuel choice advocates were thrilled, almost orgiastic. Just think, in a couple of years customers might search for fuel stations selling a range of lower-cost alternative fuels, instead of only gasoline. Environmentalists welcomed the president’s comments. Less pollution and fewer GHG emissions! Most economists were pleased. They saw more jobs and further GNP growth. Servicemen were happy. They would be asked to fight fewer wars for oil.
In this context, there was hope that the cheaper cost of oil, and its derivative, gasoline — both of which are now rising in cost — juxtaposed with the regulations resulting from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Shell’s failure to use its original drilling permit to drill successfully and the availability of less expensive competitive fuels, would end the prospect of drilling in the pristine Arctic Circle off of Alaska’s coast. It would be just too costly. Good news! We can dream, can’t we!?
Similarly, some of my colleagues and friends who support fuel choice and a better shake for consumers than gasoline (concerning costs and GHG emissions), were hoping that improved technology, lower prices, and inventions like Elon Musk’s just-announced solar storage unit, could soon generate an increased ability for solar energy to power many coal-fired utilities, homes and even vehicles. In the aggregate, the U.S. would produce significantly fewer emissions and pollutants. What a welcome, possible, short-term happening! Musk for president!
The increased popularity of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) from Tesla (among those who can afford them) and the emergence of cheaper battery-powered vehicles from Detroit have also lent hope to those who are fuel agnostic or favor a long-term, robust renewable fuel market and more consumer choices at the pump. While electric cars offer a vision of the future, their broad acceptance by the public depends on design and technology improvements to both end the fear of running out of battery power while on the road, and provide more internal space — both at costs most Americans can afford. Both problems seem to be on the way to resolution, based on the pronouncements from Tesla and Detroit. We can only hope!
But despite the optimism gene internal to most Americans, the great “big hill of hope” has recently become even bigger to climb. While alternative fuel advocates remain relatively quiet and often unable to speak with one effective voice, federal and state policies and regulations have been changed to limit the ability of alternative fuels to secure significant market penetration. Despite large subsidies to the oil industry, neither the administration nor Congress has been willing to seriously try to weaken the ability of Big Oil to restrict alternative fuel sales at local gas stations. Indeed, several attempts to enact open fuels legislation have failed to even get out of Congressional committees.
Although the country seems awash in oil, just this week, the president gave conditional approval to Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea off of Alaska, despite the company’s mismanagement of earlier attempts to do the same, and despite the objections of many environmental groups and Alaskan natives. Both industry and critics of the permits note that drilling will be risky, given very high waves, icy seas, strong winds, bitter cold weather and the need to protect the routes of migration and feeding areas for marine mammals. As The New York Times indicated this week, the permit is a “major victory for the petroleum industry and a devastating blow to environmentalists,” and for consumers, I would add. Estimates of the oil in the Chukchi Sea range all over the place. However, if oil companies are able to overcome high drilling costs and secure a significant flow of oil, even for a relatively short time, they will increase their ability to limit sales of alternative fuels among their franchises and through differential pricing, the sales of alternative fuels by independent retailers.
It doesn’t get any better. Just as opportunities to secure and store solar power — power that could be used to power homes, autos and utilities — seem almost ready for prime time, many of America’s utility companies — another great supporter of competition (excuse the cynicism) — have begun to seek legislative relief to impede solar’s growth. Their argument deserves discussion. If solar power grows, it could well be at the expense of improvements in the grid. But the use of their political power with state legislatures to seek ad-hoc remedies, different in each state, is not in the public interest. Legislative efforts to lower the price solar users secure from utilities when they put excess power on the grid may or may not be good policy or practice. Shouldn’t we know before such policies are enacted by states? Similarly, putting up regulatory impediments impeding the sale of solar units, including storage units, would likely really hurt what is now a risky start-up industry. The net result of poorly conceived state-by-state initiatives to protect the utility industry would be to limit the capacity of solar energy to substitute for coal in powering utilities and to reduce options to produce cleaner electric cars with almost zero GHG emissions. Similarly, restricting the storage of solar energy would end up slowing down the development of another alternative fuel — one based on solar-derived power.
Finally, the continuing efforts by several states to change Tesla’s business model have and will reduce competition for fuels and the use of electricity as a fuel. Why? Several state legislatures, under political pressure from auto dealers, have banned its direct-sales approach. If Tesla wants to sell its electric-powered cars in Texas, for example, it must sell through an auto dealer. Remember, some Texans recently wanted to secede from the union in order to free the state from “federal dictatorship” and, ostensibly, extend personal freedom and its corollary market competition! (I thought of signing the petition that was floating around to let Texas go.) Passing laws to protect one kind of business from another is un-American…almost like sending the Texas National Guard to monitor the training of U.S. soldiers to be sure they are not digging tunnels under Walmart and engaging in other nefarious activities contrary to the interest of the good citizens of Texas. Davy Crockett would be offended. The bottom line is that Texas and other states with similar regulations are limiting fuel choice by placing a Berlin Wall around their boundaries and not letting Tesla and its electric vehicles in. Ah. Freedom!
So, supporters have some big hills to climb and sometimes it may be a puzzlement to the climbers. But, as the singer Billy Ocean once vocalized, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Building a coalition among the willing supporters of alternative fuels should not be difficult. They share goals concerning the need for increased consumer choices and the value of open fuel markets. If they reach out to include, rather than define boundaries to exclude; if they acknowledge that absolute wisdom concerning strategies does not exist; if they are willing to work toward consensus and bring their respective constituencies along with them; and if they recognize that time is of the essence concerning achievement of key public interest and quality of American life objectives, following Robert Frost, they will travel the road less traveled, and will likely soon begin to see light at the end of their travails and travels.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Did you read about Andrew Mackenzie, CEO of BHP Billiton, and his plea to his colleagues in the oil and gas industry? He asked them to stop publicly asserting that natural gas and oil produce fewer carbon emissions than coal. Interpreting, liberally: You guys (a euphemism for men and women) are hurting BHP and its mining and resource development businesses, as well as the entire sector.
Mackenzie said it nicely. He suggested that they lay off the criticism. Because we live in a peaceful, collaborative, problem-solving era (you’re supposed to laugh at this point), his solution, sort of Isaiah-like, was, “Come, let us now reason together.” On behalf of BHP, a conglomerate and the biggest mining company (dollar capitalization) in the world — a company that also has big stakes in oil and gas — Mackenzie asked that fossil fuel companies break bread together and find mutually beneficial solutions to the carbon problem — assumedly consistent with their respective bottom lines. Put another more interpretive way, why should his colleagues in the industry undercut each other by demeaning each other’s products? Paraphrasing a common phrase today, Mackenzie seems to believe that we are all BHP; we are all Exxon; and we are all Texaco. We all have carbon issues and face government emission regulations.
Mackenzie called for the industry to develop carbon capture and storage solutions. His proposals can be construed as relatively company-friendly in that they start off seemingly focused on protecting the diverse resource production menu of each company, particularly, but not only, coal. They also may help each company avoid (at least initially) caps, taxes and fixed emission or production targets.
We shouldn’t be cynical. Carbon capture and storage have been, and continue to be, supported by some respected environmentalists and scientists. Both are endorsed in their many papers, speeches and media.
By his proposal, Mackenzie suggests that the resource-development industry is stronger when the companies that are in it work together. Accordingly, they should not be at each other’s throats and denigrate products of their competitors. We should have peace rather than war! The calls from oil and gas companies to switch from coal to gas, as a strategy to reduce GHG emissions, Mackenzie indicates, is a “very western, rich country solution.” People in many developing countries have easier access to coal than gas. To get out of poverty, they will need to “burn coal cleanly.” He said: “I think there is a marketing ploy, which is ‘give up coal and burn more gas.’ ” Very insightful! Wow! When did he discover this?
The transition to natural gas from coal among utilities has led to a visible reduction of GHG emissions. Natural-gas-based ethanol promises the same kind of reduction in transportation. Don’t knock competition or abort it unless his desired industry collaboration can result in something better and cheaper!
Whether Mackenzie’s thoughts generate from the public interest or the bottom line, from expiation of guilt or inner wisdom, it doesn’t really matter. The industry, as a whole, has been laggard in coming up with and carrying out proposals concerning GHG or criteria pollutants. Maybe we need an Australian-based firm to energize it to ultimately play or pay! But maybe not!
Mackenzie said: “I still accept the drift from coal to gas is a good thing, but these things happen gradually. We need the power of the whole oil and gas industry and the whole mining industry, together aligned on this agenda to move the needle.” What needle, and where is it being moved? Doing good while making money? Perhaps. But his language doesn’t quite go that far. Sounds more like making money by doing as much good as we have to do. From a business standpoint, both are consistent with the view of those that the business of business is business.
It’s hard to know, from a policy perspective, exactly what to do with Mackenzie’s industry-wide collaboration idea or his proposals. It’s not a case of like them or leave them. But caveat emptor!
Sequestration, the fancy name for what he opines as a solution to GHG emissions, is expensive, uses lots of energy, takes a lot of time to initiate, and is unsafe in some areas, depending on geology. Contrary to his words, it may not be relevant to poor nations or poor areas. Yet, on the other hand, it’s worthy of consideration by both the public and private sector because its strategic use can reduce emissions. We need to weigh relative benefits and costs of emissions-reduction strategies. Further, and most important, if public funds are sought, the opportunity costing analyses must be transparent and convincing before moving toward scale-up possibilities.
Elimination of competition within the industry could end up muting the value of alternative fuels and alternate power sources. It could be very costly to the public. Most experts indicate there is no such thing as “clean” coal. There is cleaner coal, but it’s still dirty, and oil remains a major GHG emitter and criteria pollutant. Reliance on both coal and oil, when we have access to cleaner alcohol-based transitional fuels for power, industrial plants and transportation is problematic, at best, and bad policy concerning GHG and other pollutants, at worst.
Lots of questions: Is Mackenzie an enlightened business leader or a leader mainly interested in preserving the value of his coal reserves? Is sequestration in its various forms a viable option that would allow the use of coal, and other portfolio resources, without major GHG impacts? Are there better alternatives? Since market segmentation is external and will likely result in increased sensitivity by CEOs to criticism concerning the public harm caused by multiple energy related products, will collaboration among them generate controlled energy markets and ultimately minimize efforts to reduce GHG emissions and provide a cleaner, healthier environment? Remember that the industry, particularly the companies in it that produce lots of oil, has been and remains against open fuel markets and increasing the number of flex-fuel vehicles. There are no easy answers.
Mark Twain, a great oil and gas man, once said, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart: the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.” Finally, borrowing and amending Shakespeare, maybe Mackenzie doth protest too much!
Photo Credit: africagreenmedia.co.za
Let’s apply a bit of Talmudic dialect to the visible dialogue now going on in the nation concerning decisions to drill for more natural gas and related considerations concerning the effect that using natural gas as a transportation fuel will have on the environment.
Now on the one hand, the price of natural gas, like gasoline, has significantly decreased over the past months and some producers seem to be abandoning or limiting production at least for a time. To many, drilling in shale seems too costly for so little revenue per thousands of cubic feet. Besides, they say there is now too much natural gas on the market for too little demand and available infrastructure to get it where it’s supposed to be. “After so much hype and billions of dollars of investment, the nation is deluged with gas and not enough pipelines…One energy company after another, year after year, has written down its investments in Arkansas and in Texas and Louisiana,” said Clifford Kraus in The New York Times.
So far, the Times’ description of the gas market is relatively similar to the analyses of most experts. But don’t despair; lately, the definition of “expert” has taken a beating in light of the lack of confidence in the stability and the almost weekly amendments to projections of natural gas supply and demand. However, because the national unemployment rate will go up significantly if we abandon experts, let’s not abandon them, for the time being. Let’s, however, not grant them grace, adoration and pedestal-like obedience. They need to do better concerning use of data and methodologies. Our knowledge concerning the natural gas profile is at best uneven and at worst…well, you insert the word.
Try looking on the other hand of iconoclast Steven Mueller, CEO of Southwestern Energy. Mueller does not believe that current data concerning the relatively depressed condition of the natural gas market should predetermine his own and his company’s decisions. His actions, some time ago, in buying shale fields cheap and in discovering new fields have turned Southwestern Energy into one of the top natural gas producers.
Mueller shares the view that the natural gas market is now down and that some companies are pulling out, at least temporarily, or reducing production. But where other producers and analysts see problems, he sees opportunities. According to The Times, Southwestern just put $5 billion down to develop 413,000 acres of reserves in the Marcellus and Utica shale fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Similarly, he acquired another gas play in Pennsylvania for $300 million.
According to Mueller, gas will soon be moving up in price because of demand. He notes, “The situation is not as bad as the industry thinks it is….I am looking at it from a different angle and I think the odds are in my favor.”
Mueller seems like he is out of place using the other hand in the oil and gasoline industry. While his company’s activities are not without environmental problems and critics, he is unusual in that he has taken the lead among companies in searching for international and national solutions to methane leakage as well as extensive water usage with respect to fracking. Significantly, he has also seen benefits, where other natural gas industry titans have stayed mum, concerning the long-term use of natural gas for fueling hydrogen-fuel cars and for other transportation fuels. Additionally, Mueller views the continued conversion of coal-fired electric plants to natural gas as a done deal and a deal that will help sustain the industry and the environment.
Checking Google for recent stories about Mueller and other CEOs in the natural gas industry suggests that Mueller, contrary to most of the others, will soon be ripe either for sainthood or tenure at Mad Magazine. What? Me worry?
Sure, he has some critics who indicate his bet on natural gas is risky and a few, implicitly, suggest he will fail (some pundits and competitors no doubt would not be too sad if he does). Most Google entries, however, view him as somewhat of an outlier in the industry, whose commitment to growth has saved his company. They grant him the benefit of their respective doubts about his imperialism concerning acquisition of natural gas plays. Some view his environmental and GHG sensitivities as necessary in helping the industry move forward as a good or reasonably good citizen. Whatever he is or will be, Mueller will not be one to devote lots of time to the thought processes associated with on the one hand, on the other hand. He seems to like being a permanent on the other hand.
A couple of Google engineers shocked the world last week by announcing that after working on the RE<C (Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal) Initiative for four years, they had concluded that renewable energy is never going to solve our carbon emissions problem.
In a widely read article in IEEE Spectrum, the prestigious journal published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Ross Koningstein and David Fork announced that after working at improving renewables on the Google project, they had decided that it wasn’t worth pursuing. Google actually closed down RE<C in 2011, but the authors are just getting around to explaining why.
At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope.
Google’s abandonment of renewable energy raises the immediate question: What about the effort to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles? And here the news is much better.
Although everyone concentrates on coal and power plants, they regularly forget that half our carbon emissions come from vehicles. It’s typical that Google’s RE<C effort didn’t address what to do about our cars. It’s too complicated to try to control the emissions from 200 million point sources.
But what’s never discussed is the fuel that goes into these vehicles. It’s well known that ethanol and methanol cut carbon emissions compared with gasoline. That’s a good chunk of the battle right there. But it doesn’t even take into account the possibility of making both fuels from non-fossil-fuel resources, so that both would be all pluses on our carbon budget.
Ethanol, as currently produced in this country, is synthesized entirely from corn, so there is no fossil-fuel element involved. Ethanol currently takes up 10 percent of all the gasoline sold is this country, but it is currently marketed at 85 percent ethanol in the Midwest, with only a 15 percent element to guarantee starting on cold days.
Methanol is generally synthesized from natural gas, so there is still a fossil-fuel element there, but there is always the possibility of making methanol from non-fossil sources. Municipal waste could easily be converted directly to methanol.
And of course there is always the possibility of synthesizing ethanol and methanol using renewable energy. People always talk about storing wind or solar energy as hydrogen, but methanol would be easier to store than hydrogen since it is a liquid to begin with and not subject to leakage and escape. Methanol can be easily stored in our current infrastructure.
The Chinese are currently building six methanol plants in Texas and Louisiana to take advantage of all the natural gas being produced there. All this methanol is slated to be shipped by tankers back to China, where it will be used to boost China’s own methanol industry — and to run some of the 1 million methanol cars the Chinese have on the road.
Yes, the Chinese are far ahead of us when it comes to using methanol a substitute for oil. But there’s a scenario that will introduce methanol in the American auto industry. With all this methanol on hand in Texas and Louisiana, someone will install a pump on one of the premises for dispensing methanol. Cars at the site will use it. Then someone will say, “Hey, why don’t I use this in my car at home? It’s cheaper.” Before you know it, there will be a contingency to have the EPA decide that methanol can be used in automobile engines the same as ethanol is currently used. And in the end, we will have large quantities of methanol substituting for foreign oil.
Is it a dream? No more unrealistic than the dreams that kept the Google scientists occupied for four years.
The Oregon Department of State Lands’ denial Monday of Ambre Energy’s proposal to build a dock to help transport up to 8.8 million tons of coal for export dealt a blow to the industry — there are two other proposed terminals in Washington, though many consider that state’s evaluation process more stringent. Oregon denied the Australian company’s permit application for the project, known as Morrow Pacific, because it said creating the dock would harm fisheries vital for local tribes.
When Nobel Laureate George Olah wrote his Wall Street Journal op ed recently announcing a new process that can turn coal exhausts into methanol, it reverberated all the way across the political spectrum and into Mother Jones.
“Can Methanol Save Us All?” says the headline of a story on MJ, written by political blogger Kevin Drum. Although loath to admit he had been reading the pages of capitalism’s largest broadsheet (he blamed the government shutdown), Drum admitted that he was intrigued. “George Olah and Chris Cox suggest that instead of venting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it causes global warming, we should use it to create methanol,” he wrote.
Olah has been writing about a “methanol economy” for a long time, and he skips over a few issues in this op-ed. One in particular is cost: it takes electricity to catalyze CO2 and hydrogen into methanol, and it’s not clear how cheap it is to manufacture methanol in places that don’t have abundant, cheap geothermal energy – in other words, most places that aren’t Iceland. There are also some practical issues related to energy density and corrosiveness in existing engines and pipelines. Still, it’s long been an intriguing idea, since in theory it would allow you to use renewable energy like wind or solar to power a facility that creates a liquid fuel that can be used for transportation. You still produce CO2 when you eventually burn that methanol in your car, of course, but the lifecycle production of CO2 would probably b less than it is with conventional fuels.
There are a few things we can cite here to set Drum’s mind at ease. First, methanol made from natural gas is already cost competitive. We don’t have to speculate. There is a sizable industry manufacturing methanol for industrial use from natural gas where it has sold for years at under $1.50 a gallon. That’s a $2.40-per-gallon mileage equivalent for gasoline (before further gains from methanol’s higher octane), making it at least 30 percent cheaper from what you’re now buying at the pump.
Of course Drum is referring here to Olah’s proposal to manufacture methanol by synthesizing hydrogen and carbon exhausts. This would be a more expensive process. But if it ever happened, the utilities would undoubtedly pay the processors to take the carbon dioxide off their hands, since it would allow them to go on operating their coal plants and using all that cheap black stuff coming out of Wyoming and West Virginia. It’s hard right now to factor up the costs but suffice to say, you would not be limited to geothermal from Iceland to make it happen.
As far as the corrosion issues are concerned, Drum can rest assured as well. It is true that methanol corrodes certain elastomers in current engines. They will have to be replaced with o-rings that can be bought at Office Depot for 50 cents. Any mechanic can perform the procedure for less than $200. Modifying current gasoline engines at the factory to burn methanol is also a surpassingly simple procedure – as opposed to altering an engine to burn liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas or hydrogen, which all require an entirely different assembly costing up to an additional $10,000.
The real rub mentioned by Drum, however, is the implication that if methanol can’t be shown to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, then there isn’t any sense in doing it. There’s a slight divergence of purpose here that isn’t always clear to people who can agree we ought to be looking for alternative fuels to replace gasoline.
For some people the issue is energy dependence and reducing the unconscionable $400 billion we spend every year on imports. As the United States Energy Security Council pointed out in a recent paper, even though we have reduced imports to only 36 percent of consumption, we are still paying the same amount for oil because OPEC functions as an oligopoly and can limit supplies. As the report concluded, “It’s not the black stuff that we import from the Persian Gulf, it’s the price.”
For other people, however, the amount of money we’re spending on foreign oil – and the international vulnerabilities it creates – is not the issue. The only thing that matters to them is how much carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere. Global warming is such an overriding concern that it supersedes everything else.
This was made clear in a recent article in Yale Environment 360 by John DeCicco, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and former senior fellow for automotive strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund, entitled “Why Pushing Alternative Fuels Makes for Bad Public Policy.”
The article argued against all forms of alternatives – ethanol, compressed natural gas, hydrogen and electric vehicles – on the grounds that none of them will do anything to reduce carbon emissions. “In the case of electric vehicles, an upstream focus means cutting CO2 emissions from power plants,” wrote DeCicco.
Without low-carbon power generation, EVs will have little lasting value. Similarly, for biofuels such as ethanol, any potential climate benefit is entirely upstream on land where feedstocks are grown. Biofuels have no benefit downstream, where used as motor fuels, because their tailpipe CO2 emissions differ only trivially from those of gasoline.
Instead, DeCicco argued that environmentally conscious individuals should concentrate on cleaning up power plants while support for alternative fuels should be limited to research and development.
By the time the power sector is clean enough and battery costs fall enough for EVs to cut carbon at a significant scale, self-driving cars and wireless charging will probably render today’s electric vehicle technologies obsolete. Accelerating power sector cleanup is far more important than plugging in the car fleet
All this short-changes the clear advantages that can come from reducing our huge trade deficit and replacing oil with homegrown natural gas. The less money we spend on imports, the more we will have for making environmental improvements and investing in complex technology such as carbon capture that can reduce carbon emissions.
In addition, DeCicco may be being too pessimistic about alternative fuels’ potential for reducing carbon emissions. As The New York Times reported in a recent story about natural gas cars, “According to the Energy Department’s website, natural gas vehicles have smaller carbon footprints than gasoline or diesel automobiles, even when taking into account the natural gas production process, which releases carbon-rich methane into the atmosphere. Mercedes-Benz says its E200, which can run on either gasoline or natural gas, emits 20 percent less carbon on compressed natural gas than it does on gasoline.” Besides, if the source of emissions can be switched from a million tailpipes to one power plant, it’s a lot easier to apply new technology.
Mother Jones and The Wall Street Journal have much more in common than they may realize. One way or another, it would benefit everyone if we could reduce our dependency on foreign oil.
Remember the passion, the commitment and vigorous national dialogue concerning the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement? No matter how one viewed the issues involved or whether one was pro or con with respect to each initiative, most of the nation, even if only watching the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news, seemed involved, to some extent, emotionally and many intellectually.
Given the concern many Americans seem to have for the future of the environment, the nation’s security problems and the sluggish economy (not to mention shrinking pocketbooks), why haven’t we been able to replicate the intense passions and commitments of the ‘60s and early ‘70s with respect to the muted debate over alternative transitional fuels. Very few articles in the press or on cable and TV headline the wisdom of efforts to reduce America’s dependence on gasoline through providing increased consumer choices at the pump. Those that do approach headline or first-tier status suggest, generally, often without hard analysis, that increased oil and gas production (Saudization of America) will grant the U.S. oil independence, forgetting the global nature of the oil market. The media has not focused on the costs of continued reliance on imported oil and the very restricted American vehicular fuel market limiting consumers, by and large, to costly, dirty gasoline. In-depth coverage of alternative non-renewable fuels as substitutes for gasoline and as transitional fuels before renewables are ready for prime time is rare and most times, more opinion than fact. Even the venerable New York Times rarely covers alternative transitional fuels in the context of an overall assumed national commitment to “wean” the nation off of gasoline.
Why haven’t the public and the media become involved in a real dialogue concerning the benefits and costs of alternative fuels versus continued reliance on gasoline?
I think it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. Recall the intense TV coverage of Bull Connor’s vicious attack using dogs and high pressure hoses on kids in Alabama and the nobility of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech on the mall? Both gripped us and made civil rights a moral issue. Remember TV’s extensive coverage of the marches by mostly young but also many older folks opposing the Vietnam War? And who could forget the photo of the little girl walking alone on the highway with her clothes burned off from a napalm attack and the many movies portraying G.I. casualties? It was difficult to stay neutral concerning the war, particularly if our kids or the neighbor’s kids were involved. Finally, while some Americans disagreed with them, the women’s movement had visible charismatic leaders like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Betty Ford, who had a knack for getting on TV and in newspapers to champion the need for women’s equality. Over time, they reached many of us, and if we didn’t join the movement, we argued for its success.
President Obama’s State of the Union speech was greeted with popular applause when he said we must get off of oil, but the line concerning the need to wean us off oil seem to have a shelf life of 24 hours…or maybe 48 hours. It clearly didn’t move the needle much in public interest and the public’s attention understandably turned to more media-friendly issues, such as Washington’s dysfunctional character, the budget, the debt ceiling and the Middle East.
Anti-Vietnam sentiments, civil rights and women’s rights were internalized by a relatively large, but still a minority, sector of the public. Participants in the effort to secure change viewed the three issues as affecting them personally and, for the most part, crossed class and caste lines, a fact that was deepened by the draft with respect to Vietnam. Although none of the three probably could have secured a majority vote,if placed on the ballot initially, they each grabbed the attention of most Americans over time.
Looking back, clearly the sustained involvement of a relatively cohesive minority of the public led by aggressive leadership created significant political and policy reforms. Issues were cast in terms Americans could easily understand — securing justice, freedom and a better America. They created a strong moral underpinning to proposed actions. Ultimately, grassroots support convinced key elected leaders that they could move positively without retribution to secure respective agendas.
Enveloping alternative fuels and the monopolistic gasoline markets in moral tableaux will not be easy. The issues involved are complex and don’t, without effort, engage people for more than short periods of time. They are tough to convert to brief TV or cable spots. Try going to a dinner party and raising moral variables around the reality of limited choices of consumers at the pump. Yawn…don’t expect a return invitation! Similarly, the fact that low-income households pay nearly 15% of their income for gasoline and are therefore limited concerning purchase of other basic goods does not easily translate into visual and visceral understandable, personal moral pictures. Similarly, despite the data showing increasing harm to the poor regarding the journey to work and constrained housing choices caused by high costs of gasoline, aggregate statistics blur individual problems. The economy’s overall sluggishness and its impact on most Americans, except the very affluent, divert focused attention. Happily, there is no Bull Connor, and your neighborhood gasoline station owner is often from the community. It’s difficult to make him or her an ogre. He or she is generally a hard-working individual and is struggling to make ends meet. Even the most vigorous advocates of alternative fuels and open fuel markets have yet to figure out how to vividly personalize the negative impact of the constraints imposed on the market by the oil industry on consumers, particularly low income consumers. Black hats and mustaches (whether painted in graphics or narratives) to describe the oil industry’s leadership, hasn’t worked well. Where is Norman Rockwell when we need him?
The phrase “we need all of the above” is used often in a bipartisan way by our political leaders to describe the nation’s energy strategy. The phrase may well be true, but it is difficult to get excited about it. Try it on your husband, wife or significant other tonight and see if it motivates a meaningful response. “Hey, honey, there is a meeting tonight of people interested in energy reform. The expansion of alternative fuel choices will be at the center of a strategy to grant priority to all our energy sources — coal, oil, natural gas, bio fuels, derivatives of each. It’s important. Do you want to go?” Probable response: “Are you serious? You were so romantic when I met you. What happened?”
The messages related to Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, at the time, were simplified into understandable, often emotional, terms. They were complemented by extensive media coverage and by strong moral certitude of both presenters and listeners. Parsed words and nuanced sentences were not often needed to convince folks to join the causes. The coalitions that were created put in hard work and lots of sweat equity to build and generate grassroots efforts. But the people were out there waiting to be recruited. While members might have disagreed on strategic policy options, they were generally together on broad objectives.
The effort to secure alternative transitional fuels and open up the gasoline market does not lend itself easily to the type of grassroots initiatives generated in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The messages and data used to support them are seen as too complicated and, frankly, confusing to potential grassroots participants. In this context, the oil industry and its captive groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) have big budgets and have seen fit to use their resources seemingly to confuse and distort information concerning gasoline and alternative fuels.
I am not sure a passionate grassroots movement can be created to support alternative fuels. At best, it will be difficult. But, democracy works in many ways. Progress is being made in forging working alliances among advocates of alternative fuels and leaders in the business, environmental, public sector and academic communities. Their ability to form sustainable, strong alliances will increase their likely ability to influence public policy concerning transitional fuels and open fuel markets. Building public understanding, combined with political acuity and a willingness to reach out to varied groups, will increase the odds of success in winning political, legislative and statutory support. Much will depend on their collective willingness to depart from traditional divisive ideological and institutional focus. Their leadership, borrowing the rhetoric from the Vietnam War, will probably have to learn how to make love, not war, in developing a collaborative agenda.