Shakespeare and Julia Child on monopolies, competition and alternative fuels

You must remember the famous community activist who once asked, “To be, or not to be, that is the policy and behavior question; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously high, constantly shifting gasoline prices or to take arms against a sea of troubles generated by monopolistic fuel markets and open them up and end them.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare, now that we need him, is no longer available. But his question, articulated by his political friend Hamlet, still needs to be answered. I suggest we respond to his query in the context of another question: Is competition in the market for vehicular fuel a public good and in the public interest? Ah ha, you ask, why must we ask this question? Don’t we live in a capitalist or quasi-capitalist nation? Gosh, ever since we all were kids, were we not brought up on the wisdom of free markets and their ostensible link to freedom and democracy, a trifecta holy grail?

Sure we were! But the presented wisdom apparently didn’t mean all markets, and most important for this article, the market where most of us purchase fuel. By and large, the market for fuel is limited to a single, generally similar, primary product — gasoline. Competition, when it exists, generates from relatively small price differences, more often than not. Overblown value propositions in advertising concerning engine performance benefits from brand X or Y notwithstanding.

Consumers who, many times, assiduously read the papers or go online to find out where different brands of tires are cheapest or travel miles to visit dealers to get a perceived “good deal” on a car are frequently constrained to their neighborhood gas stations or the stations located near the nearest shopping center or big box store. While price may be a key factor in driving their decision as to which station will fill up their tank, absence of diverse fuel alternatives results in a relatively narrow band of prices per gallon and a competitive floor on consumer savings and costs.

Opening up gas markets will be tough. The oil industry controls or strongly influences over 40 percent of the stations and holds a big, profitable stick concerning what can be sold and how it can be sold at its franchised facilities. Prices are set low enough to scare independents into selecting less-than-favorable locations, or pricey enough to give them some room to keep their own costs relatively high.

To date, state pilot or demonstration programs concerning alternative fuels like ethanol and methanol have had mixed results. Why? Their costs of production and their environmental/GHG costs are lower than gasoline. Are we Americans just dumb? No. Initiatives to date have had to surmount problems including: consumer access to fuel stations with flex-fuel pumps (their costs range from $50,000 to over $100,000); a growing but still relatively small percentage of flex fuel autos compared to the total number of vehicles; the lack of consumer information concerning their own flex-fuel vehicle’s ability to use ethanol; the fear generated by some interest groups often related to the oil industry about the impact of alternative fuels on engines; the seeming ability of the oil industry to manage local prices; and the decisions by supply chain participants, particularly retailers to raise alternative fuel prices to capture immediate profits (reducing their intermediate and long-term ability — as the new kid on the block — to compete with gasoline.)

Evidence from Brazil suggests that demand emanating from an educated public, combined with a commitment to increase the pool of alternative-fuel vehicles and readily accessible fuel stations with ethanol pumps will cause a reduction in gasoline prices. Juliano J. Assunção, Joao Paulo Pessoa and Leonardo Rezende noted in a December 2013 London School of Economics publication, “Our estimates suggest that the model prediction is correct and that as the percentage of flex cars increase by 10%, ethanol and gasoline energy equivalent prices per liter fall by approximately 8 cents and 2 cents, respectively. Considering the volume of sales and size of the flex fuel fleet in 2007, a rough estimate suggests consumer savings to the order of 70 million Reais in the Rio de Janeiro state that year. Our estimates also show that the price gap as well as the price correlation between the two fuels has increased with the increased penetration of flex fuel cars.” Other studies have suggested similar positive impacts.

A U.S. recipe appears clear and consistent with America’s assumed belief in letting the market decide most resource allocation issues connected to the production of non-social welfare related goods and services. Ingredient one: Amend laws and regulations to encourage individual owners to convert older cars to flex-fuel automobiles; ingredient two: mix the resulting converted cars with newer flex-fuel vehicles to create a large flex-fuel pool; ingredient three: liberally sprinkle in enough information to inform consumers and potential-ethanol-supply-chain participants, including potential blenders and retailers, of the potential demand for ethanol as a fuel; ingredient four: add real, solid seasoning to the mix by fostering development, distribution and the sale of natural-gas-based ethanol to achieve significant increased environmental and cost benefits. Julia Child couldn’t build a better dish for the nation as it simultaneously tries to expand the viability of renewable fuels, and Shakespeare’s friend, Hamlet, would not need antidepressants.

Star light, star bright: Wishing for a cleaner, less-expensive fuel

Star light, star bright, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight… How many of you said these words on a starry night, particularly if you were with your best girl or boyfriend as a teenager? Or, as a loving parent, how many of you taught your child to say these words as part of your effort to build his or her vocabulary or memory…or just to instill their capacity to dream?

Now Kate Gordon, the, legitimately well respected, president of Next Generation, seems to have forgotten the difference between wishing, hoping, dreaming and reality. Her recent brief “expert” article in the Wall Street Journal departs from reasonable projection into fanciful wishes.

Gordon is correct that the “average car” on the U.S. road is about 11 years old and that their negative impact on GHG emissions and our health is significant. She is also correct in pointing to the large impact that high gas prices have on “our wallets,” (I would add) particularly for low and moderate-income households. Clearly, for the poor and near-poor families and for the economically fragile moderate-income households, present gas prices mean less of the basic necessities: modest job choices, good food, housing and healthcare.

Where Gordon and I part company is with her suggestion that an auto replacement initiative or what she calls an Enhanced Fleet Modernization programs would generate a visible, short-term impact and would likely be supported now, by assumedly the federal or state governments, in a significant way. (I should indicate that while I was head of the urban policy in the Carter administration, HUD senior officials thought about offering support by providing older cars to carless, low-income folks to permit them to secure job opportunities in the suburbs. How times have changed. The concern about GHG emissions and other pollutants emitted from older cars that run on gasoline are now seen as a real environmental problem.) The difficulty with Ms. Gordon’s proposal is number one, money and bureaucracy; number two, money and bureaucracy; and number three, money and bureaucracy. Even California, which she touts, has had mixed results with its replacement and incentives to replace older car programs. Clearly, exporting California’s experience to many other states, given economic and political constraints, would be difficult and would likely result annually in a relatively small impact on the nearly 300,000,000 cars in the U.S of which approximately 85-90 percent are over six years old.

Car replacement is a nice thought, but probably, at this time, an exotic one. If policymakers are seriously looking for a way for large numbers of owners of older cars to immediately reduce their vehicle’s negative effect on the environment, air quality and their own costs of fuel, there are better ways. While we wait and hope for the advent of vehicles that are ready to run on renewable fuels and that simultaneously meet the travel as well as budget needs and demands of most low, moderate and middle-income Americans, we should look at natural-gas-based ethanol as a fuel for newer flex fuel cars and for large numbers of older vehicles converted to flex-fuel vehicles.

Ethanol is not perfect as a fuel but it is better than gasoline. It emits fewer GHG emissions and other pollutants harmful to the nation’s quality of life. Recent regulations, like ones initiated by Colorado, that significantly reduce emissions from drilling now will likely make life cycle environmental evaluations of natural gas changed into ethanol a much better environmental deal. The process appears technologically feasible at a cost lower than the production costs of gasoline. If ethanol is allowed to compete with gasoline by oil companies on an even playing field — oil companies generally control who gets what and where at most “gas” stations — ethanol will be cheaper than gasoline for the consumer.

It is relatively inexpensive to convert older cars to flex-fuel vehicles — perhaps as little as $100 to $200. Finding a way through lessening the cost of certification to expand the number of conversion kits certified by the EPA and, or, where relevant, allowing recalibration of software and engines, would expand the benefit-cost ratio for many older cars. Star light, star bright, we can have the wish we wish tonight concerning a cleaner environment and lower consumer prices in a relatively short time, while we continue to push for electric vehicles and a whole range of renewable fuels to achieve prime-time performance for most Americans.

The oil industry and API, at it again. When will they ever learn?

Never a dull moment! The API is at it again. Just a few days ago, it dramatically issued a survey indicating that close to 70% of all consumers were worried that E15 (a blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline) would damage their cars. While the survey was done apparently by a reputable firm, it was not attached to the press release, preventing independent experts or advocate group experts from commenting or verifying the questions and the sample. More importantly, the survey was preceded by an expensive oil industry media blitz that illustrated or talked about the so-called evils of ethanol. The survey and media show reflected an attempt by the oil industry to eliminate or weaken the renewable fuel mandates and lessen competition from alternative transitional fuels.

Americans are usually not Pavlovian in demeanor or behavior; we do ask for second and even third opinions from our doctors. But when only one group, in this case, the oil industry, has put out a continuous flashy very expensive multimedia message, the API’s survey results were almost preordained to reflect the published results. Whatever the industry wanted it got! If you tell a misleading partial story to create fear and uncertainty, long enough, it will likely influence many. In this case, the API, if it had a nose, its nose, similar to Pinocchio’s, would be growing and growing and growing.

Let’s look at the facts — never acknowledged by the API in its “Fuel for Thought” campaign.

  1. DOE effectively demolished the API-supported study many months ago indicating that the sampling approach was wrong and the analysis was faulty. DOE’s study used a much larger number of vehicles and was far more rigorous concerning methodology. (Just to let you know, API is an oil industry funded group.)
  2. Many countries around the world have used E15 and higher ethanol blends as a fuel without significant problems. They are seen as a way to reduce environmental problems. They are cheaper than gasoline and they reduce the need, at times, for oil imports. Put another way, they improve quality of life, lower costs to the consumer, and are good for the economy and security.
  3. Although oil company franchise agreements with gas stations have limited the number of stations able to sell E15, several states (mostly in the Midwest) with multi-fuel stations, have demonstrated the merits of E15. Early data appears to discount engine problems.

Hell, Henry Ford’s initial car was designed to run on pure ethanol until the temperance movement supported by Standard Oil banned the use of manufactured alcohol. I know Standard Oil was very concerned that Americans would drink ethanol at their favorite bars or in front of their favorite fire place with their favorite significant other. Praise be to Standard Oil for salvation!

The law (RFS) requires a 10% ethanol blend with gasoline. More than a year ago, EPA OK’d the sale of E15 (for most cars particularly those produced after 2001). In June, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal by the oil industry of EPA’s standards.

API’s media campaign raises the food versus fuel fight canard because ethanol is produced mostly from corn as the feedstock. But the narratives neglect to raise the fact that the evidence concerning the negative impact on food is disputed by reputable analysts who indicate that, for the most part, the corn used for ethanol production is not your friendly grocery counter corn. Put another way, most of the corn to ethanol conversion comes from corn not able to be used for food. Yes, there still maybe some impacts on corn production and prices because of the growers reallocation of land, in light of the differential between corn and ethanol prices, to ethanol. However, many studies suggest that if a negative food impact exists, it is relatively minor. It is a worthy debate.

It appears, that API, conveniently, forgets to mention that ethanol can be produced efficiently and effectively from natural gas and that cellulosic based ethanol is now being manufactured or will soon be manufactured in large volumes by several companies. Further, Clean Energy Fuels announced this week that it will start selling fuel made from methane in landfills and other waste sources in over 40 stations in California. Success of these initiatives, likely, will mean the end of the fuel versus food issue. If success is combined with the inexpensive conversion of existing cars to flex fuel cars permitting them to use alternative fuels, America will be blessed with a much cleaner, environmentally safe, and cheaper alternatives to gasoline- assuming the oil industry doesn’t block their sale at fuel stations.

Clearly, the oil industry does not want competition at the pump from ethanol…whether corn, cellulosic, garbage or natural gas. The American public should be wary of misleading guerilla marketing through industry funded surveys or not so benign expensive media blasts by captive organizations like API. Hopefully, the American consumer will not be confused for long. Paraphrasing a song by Peter, Paul and Mary about war and peace and a statement by President Lincoln, when will the oil companies ever learn?, and, if they don’t learn, when will they recognize “they can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time but they cannot fool all the people all the time.”