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CNG, Natural Gas sign, LNG

CNG moves ahead on all fronts

The effort to substitute compressed natural gas for foreign oil in our gas tanks is moving ahead on all fronts across the country, in scores of municipal departments that are converting their fleets, in new gas stations that are opening and with entrepreneurs who are looking for ways to speed up the conversion.

Leading the pack is Clean Energy Fuels, T. Boone Pickens’ effort to put the nation’s natural gas resources to work in the transport sector. Clean Energy Fuels has targeted long-distance, heavy-duty trucks, which tend to stay on the Interstate Highway System and can be services at massive truck stops. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Clean Energy Fuels is building stations in Pittston and Pottsville that will serve trucks on heavily the traveled I-81 and I-476. They are scheduled to open later this year.

But much of Clean Energy Fuels’ real success is coming from the fleet conversion for major shipping firms that rely heavily on truck transportation. The company has had particular success with UPS. Fueling depots were recently opened in Oklahoma City and Amarillo, Texas. The carrier E.J. Madison, LLC has deployed a fleet of 20 long-haul LNG trucks that will utilize a CEF network of stations that stretches from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville is emerging as a hub of CEF activity as the company has opened a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal there as well. LNG is more difficult to handle than compressed natural gas but has much greater energy density.

Rapidly expanding in Florida, CEF has just announced a grand opening of a CNG filling station that will service the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), which provides public transportation throughout the Tampa metropolitan area. The opening kicks off a plan to convert HART’s entire fleet of public services buses and vans to compressed gas.

Just last week Clean Energy Fuels CEO Andrew Littlefair was in the news telling The Motley Fool that Tesla’s electric cars will not be in competition with CEF’s efforts. “Tesla and electric vehicles are really great for certain applications,” he told interviewer Josh Hall. “But hauling 80,000 pounds of cargo, natural gas is really well suited for that.”

However, even if Clean Energy Fuels doesn’t think CNG can compete with electric at the passenger-car level, others do. Last week the Wawa convenience store chain announced it will partner with South Jersey Gas to open CNG fueling stations in southern New Jersey. “Compressed natural gas gives us an opportunity to increase the convenience we offer our customers and positions us for the future as well,” Brian Schaller, vice president of fuel for Wawa told the press. “We’re excited about the growth potential.” With 600 stores on the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida, Wawa has plenty of room to grow.

Pennsylvania is becoming a hotbed of compressed gas progress as the state seeks to take advantage of the Marcellus Shale. The state has adopted a funding program to help businesses convert. One of the first to take advantage is Houston-based Waste Management, which received an $806,000 grant from the State Department of Community & Economic Development to switch 25 of its waste and recycling collection vehicles to CNG. Pennsylvania-American Water Company has also announced plans to convert its fleet with a $315,000 state grant. American Water, the largest water utility in the state, operates out of Scranton.

Nebraska is a long way from any natural gas drilling but the Uribe Refuse Services company of Lincoln has announced it will convert its entire fleet of 17 trucks to natural gas over the next few years. The first trucks were displayed in the city last week on Earth Day.

Oklahoma is a big oil-and-gas producing state and is making a major effort to convert state vehicles to natural gas. In 2011 Gov. Mary Fallin joined 15 other states in a multi-state memorandum of understanding committing them to purchase NGVs for the state fleet. The state now has 400 CNG vehicles and is pushing the federal government to convert its fleet in the state as well. Oklahoma is building CNG gas stations to match and now stands third in the nation behind California and New York.

The natural gas industry is putting its shoulder to the wheel on this effort. The American Gas Association and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) have teamed up to sponsor “Add Natural Gas (+NG),” an effort that is encouraging entrepreneurs and mechanics to convert ordinary passenger cars already on the road to CNG. “Fleets across the country are already using natural gas vehicles to save money and reduce emissions,” says the group’s website. “However, natural gas can be used to fuel any vehicle. To demonstrate this, we worked with automotive engineers to add natural gas as a fueling option for some of the most popular vehicles on the market today.”

Performance CNG LLC is a Michigan startup that has been inspired to take up the initiative. The company recently had a hybridized 2012 Ford Mustang GT demonstrated as part of +NG’s campaign and is currently trying to raise $55,000 in capital on Indiegogo, an international crowd funding site. More than half the money would go to EPA emissions testing.

Not everyone is convinced that CNG is the way to go. Clean Energy Fuel’s stock has done poorly since January, based on investor skepticism that its market is not that big and that some liquid natural-gas based fuel – methanol of butanol – will prove easier to handl

Of myths, oil companies and a competitive fuel market

I do not wish to join the intense dialogue concerning whether or not the government should allow exports of crude oil. Others are already doing a good job of confusing and obscuring the pros and cons of selling increased amounts of America’s growing oil resources overseas.

What I do want to do is just focus on the logic of one of the oil industry’s major arguments for extending the permitting of exports — again, not on the wisdom of exporting policy. Permit me to do so in the context of the industry’s long-standing argument concerning the pricing of gasoline to U.S. consumers. The argument is that more oil drilling in the U.S. will lower the price of gas and put America on the path to oil “independence.”

In somewhat of circuitous manner, oil companies are using the opposite of their domestic advocacy for “drill, baby, drill” policy as a way to keep prices lower at the pump. Their yin is that producing more oil in the U.S. and sending significant amounts overseas, combined with declining vehicular fuel demand, will lower gas prices. Economist Adam Smith would applaud the simplicity if he were alive and well. Their yang presents a bit more complicated set of “ifs.” That is, the industry presumes that fulfillment of the yen (excuse another pun) to export will result in more U.S. oil being drilled because of increased world demand generated by the assumed ability of the U.S. to produce oil at less costs than the world price for oil. It will also help foster infrastructure development in the U.S. to break up current log jams concerning oil transportation. Finally, it will facilitate more efficient refineries, allowing them to specialize in different types of oil. The yin and yang will result in (marginally) lower prices of gasoline — so goes the rhetoric and oil-industry-paid-for studies.

Paraphrasing Dr. Pangloss in “Candide,” the oil companies hope for the “best of all possible worlds.” But, before Americans run out and buy stock, note the price of gasoline does not directly reflect oil production volume. Indeed, gas prices, despite increased supplies, have gyrated significantly and now hover nationally over $4 a gallon. Generally, oil and gas prices relate to international prices, tension in the Middle East and investor and banker speculation — not always or directly domestic costs. Stockholders and executives of oil companies function not on patriotism but on profit and to the extent that the law permits, they will sell overseas to get the best price — in effect, the best dollar over payment for a barrel of oil. Consumers, I suspect, are rarely a significant part of their opportunity costing.

Unfortunately, lack of strong empirical evidence tempers the company’s argument that increased world demand will stimulate good things like refinery efficiency and log-jam-ending infrastructure. Maybe if the price per barrel is right (clearly, higher than it is now) and seems predictable for more than a small period of time, refinery and infrastructure developments will be positive. But, the costs to the consumer, in this context, will be higher. It will also be higher because shale oil is tight oil and more risky and costly to drill.

Oil independence is a myth suggested by oil industry and a non-analytical media. Certainly, the oil boom and less vehicular demand have generated less imports and less dependency. But we still buy nearly 300 billion dollars’ worth of oil every year to respond to need and we still produce far less than demand.

Somewhere in the dark labyrinth of each major oil company is a pumped-up (another pun), never-used, secret justification for franchise agreements impeding the sale of alternative fuels in their retail outlets. To alleviate guilt, it may go something like this: “Monopolies at the pump will allow us to make larger profits. You know we will someday soon want to give back some of the profits to consumers by lowering the price of gasoline.” If you believe this still-secret beneficence, let me sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is another way to steady the gasoline market and lower consumer costs. Inexpensive conversions to allow older vehicles to use safe, cheaper and environmentally better alternative fuels (as opposed to gasoline), combined with expanded use by flex-fuel owners of alternative fuels, would add competition to the fuel market and likely reduce prices for consumers. Natural-gas-based ethanol is on the horizon and methanol, once the EPA approves, will follow, hopefully shortly thereafter. Electric cars, once costs are lower and distance on single charges is higher, will be a welcome addition to the competitive mix.

The Battle Over Ethanol Takes Shape

The decision isn’t scheduled until June but already opposing sides are converging on Washington, trying to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency over the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard for ethanol.

Last week almost 100 members of the American Coalition for Ethanol descended on the nation’s capital for its annual “Biofuels Beltway March,” buttonholing 170 lawmakers and staffers from 45 states.  The object was to send a message to EPA Administrators Gina McCarthy to up the ante on how many billions of gallons the oil refining industry will be required to purchase this year.

The ethanol program is currently in turmoil.  The latest problem is rail bottlenecks that have slowed shipments and created supply shortages over the winter months.  Record-breaking cold and four-foot snow pack have been partly responsible but the rail lines are also becoming overcrowded.  With all that oil gushing down from the Bakken and Canadian crude now finding its way into tank cars as the Obama Administration postpones its decision over the Keystone Pipeline, ethanol is getting tangled in traffic.  .

“Ethanol for April delivery sold for about $3.02 a gallon on the Chico Board of Trade, an 81 percent increase over the low price during the past 12 months of $1.67 a gallon reached in November,” reported the Omaha World-Herald last Friday  “This weeks settlement price of $2.98 a gallon was the highest since July 2011.”  With only so much storage capacity, some ethanol refineries have been forced to shut down until the next train arrives to carry off the inventory.  As ethanol becomes mainstream, it is becoming more and more subject to market events beyond its control.

But the big decision will be EPA’s ruling in June.  In accord with the 2008 Renewable Fuel Act, Administrator McCarthy must set a “floor” for amount of ethanol refiners will have to incorporate into their blends during 2014.  The program ran into trouble last year when the 13.8 billion gallon requirement pushed ethanol beyond the 10 percent “blend wall” where the auto companies will not honor warrantees in older cars.  Refiners were forced to purchase compensating Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which exploded in value from pennies to $1.30 per gallon, forcing up the price of gasoline.  Contrary to expectations, gasoline consumption has actually declined over the last six years, from 142 billion gallons in 2008 to 134 billion in 2013 as a result of mileage improvements plus the lingering effects of the recession.  Last November McCarthy proposed reducing the 2014 from 14.4 billion gallons to 13 billion.  The industry has been crying “foul” ever since.

But there are other ways to fight back.  Last week in Crookson, gas stations were offering Minnesota drivers 85 cents off a gallon for filling up with E-85, the blend of 85 percent ethanol that many see as the real solution to the blend-wall problem.  “We want the public to understand there are different ratios of gasoline and ethanol and how they can save you money,” Greg LeBlac, of the Polk County Corn Growers, told the Fargo Valley News. 

At the annual meeting of the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers (APFM) in Orlando last week, Anna Temple, product manager at WoodMac, made the case that the industry should forego efforts to raise the blend wall from 10 to 15 percent and instead shoot for the moon, leapfrogging all the way to E-85, where ethanol essentially replaces gasoline completely.  (The 15 percent only ensures starts in cold weather.)

“E-15 is a non-starter in terms of market share,” Temple told her audience, as reported by John Kingston’s in Platts.  http://blogs.platts.com/2014/03/25/eight-fillups/  She argued the incremental battle would absorb vast amounts of political capital yet still not be enough to absorb the 15-billion-gallon target for 2021.  Instead, Temple pointed to the growing fleet of flex-fuel vehicles that now numbers around 15 million, headed for 25 million in 2021 or 10 percent of the nation’s 250-million-car fleet.

“If U.S. drivers poured about 200,000 barrels-per-day of E-85 into their flex fuel cars in 2021, that would take care of about 17 percent of the scheduled ethanol mandate,” Temple said.  “It would only require that flex-fuel owners fill a 15-gallon tank eight times a year.”   The remainder would be absorbed in the 10 percent blend and ethanol producers would not have to cut output.

Platts’ Kingston checked the math and found that even this goal would leave ethanol consumption slightly above the blend wall at 10.5 percent.  “Still, the very modest number of eight fill-ups per flex fuel vehicles per year makes the whole blend wall issue seems a lot less daunting,” he confessed.

Of the 15 million people who own flex-fuel vehicles, of course, many don’t even realize it.  (The yellow gas cap or a rear-end decal are the giveaway.)  But the number of gas stations offering E-85 pumps is rising.  The Energy Information Administration now estimates the number at 2,500 with most of the growth taking place outside the Midwestern homeland.  California and New York each have more than 80 stations apiece.

The problem of rail bottlenecks can probably be solved by increasing the number of E-85 outlets and flex-fuel vehicles to bring supplies closer to the place of consumption.  Still, the industry would probably be happy to have a bigger renewable fuel mandate as well.

Outnumbered 100-to-1, Methanol Is Upbeat

“Why is it that we hear every day some new story about Elon Musk’s electric car, about Clean Energy Fuel’s efforts to build a CNG highway, or about some laboratory breakthrough that is at last going to bring us cellulosic ethanol, yet with methanol now cheaper than gasoline, you still never hear anything about it?”

That’s the question I posed to the three-member panel while serving as moderator for the wrap-up session at the 2014 Methanol Policy Forum in Washington last week.  The sponsors were the Methanol Institute, the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) and the Energy Security Council.

Anne Korin, co-director of IAGS, who earlier had moderated an even bigger panel that included former U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and former Ambassador to the European Union Boyden Gray, had a very unusual answer.  “If I may be permitted to be a bit cynical here,” she said, “I think the reason may be because methanol doesn’t require any subsidies.”  The implication, of course, is that those who come to Washington begging for money receive a lot more attention from Senators and Congressmen than those who don’t.

The question of politics versus economics had been raised at the outset of the daylong conference by Korin’s co-director at IAGS, Gal Luft, in his opening remarks.  “We’ve all heard this business about the circular firing squad and how the various alternatives to foreign oil shouldn’t be fighting each other,” he told the audience of about 400.  “But you have to acknowledge the importance of what goes on in Washington.  You can’t just talk about production you need money.  If you’re not at the table, that means you’re probably on the menu.

Luft showed a chart illustrating that while corn ethanol production exceeds methanol production by a factor of only 5-to-1 (14 billion gallons/year as compared with 2 bg/yr), the amount of money spent lobbying for ethanol is 50-to-1 (less than $100,000 vs. $5 million).  “When you add in the politics of the farm belt, it’s probably closer to 100-to-1,” he added.

So was anyone discouraged?  Not at all.  The news from industry executives is that methanol production is ramping up everywhere due to the bonanza of the fracking revolution.  It seems like only a matter of time before the idea of replacing large portions of our fuel imports with domestically produced methanol begins to command attention.

“In the past decade we closed down five methanol plants in the U.S. and moved them all to China,” John Floren, CEO of Methenex told the gathering of 400 at the Capital Hilton.  “The price of gas had become just too high.  Now we’ve moved two plants back from Chile and are looking at a third relocation.  We’ve got 1000 people working on our Louisiana site.  The chemical industry is starting to build as well.”

Tim Vail, the CEO of G2X, another methanol producer, had a similar take.  “The U.S. is a great place to invest right now,” he told the audience.  “The argument was always that you had to go to the ends of the earth to build methanol plants because that gas wasn’t available here.  Now all that has changed.  Our big worry is labor shortages but the construction industry is responding to our needs.  It takes away a lot of anxiety about having your assets appropriated by other countries.  China may seem like a good place to invest, but can you really trust the rule of law?”

Philip Lewis, chief technology officer of Zero Emission Energy Plants (ZEEP) was equally upbeat.  “I think the whole shale thing is being underestimated,” he said at the close of the morning session.  “It’s another industrial revolution.  And it won’t happen anywhere else because we have the thing that makes it work – private ownership of the resource.  In France, the government owns all the mineral rights and no one wants drilling on their land.”

But governments do have control over other things in this country and there was some questioning of whether federal agencies will be receptive to methanol as a fuel substitute or additive.  Matt Brusstar, deputy director of the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory, claimed that his agency had been in the lead of methanol development for 30 years.  “Charlie Grady, who was in our department, was a big supporter of methanol,” said Brusstar.  “He even wrote a book about it.”  (Unfortunately, a Google search for Charlie Grady and methanol turns up no mention of Grady or his book.)  Patrick Davis, the director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Department of Energy, was even less encouraging.  “The Office of Science does not currently have any projects to create methanol as an end fuel,” he said.  “It could take a decade to sell enough methanol-compatible vehicles before a widespread distribution network would be feasible.”

When I queried Brusstar about Robert Zubrin’s documentation of the multi-thousand-dollar fines that the EPA is imposing for unauthorized conversions of engines to methanol, [See “Making the Case for Mars and Methanol,” Feb. 11] several government officials, plus Fuel Freedom Foundation director of research Mike Jackson, argued that faulty conversions can increase air pollution.

Despite the notable lack of enthusiasm from government agencies, however, there was a strong sense among the rank-and-file that methanol may be about to find a place in the sun.  “This is a much bigger crowd than we’ve ever had,” said one veteran of previous conferences.  “It’s a very exciting time for methanol.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Putin , Ukraine and Oil

How many of you have ever been to Russia? It is a fascinating place filled with fascinating people. While in Russia facilitating an Aspen Global Forum of U.S. and Russian leaders,  I visited Nikita Khrushchev’s grave. He lies under six feet of earth — probably  banging his shoe and confessing that he still wishes he could have incrementally changed Russia.  He was not Gorbachev, but neither was he Rasputin.

On top of his grave was a very attractive gravestone. One half was white, the other half black. I asked the workmen what it meant.They explained the contrast by indicating that Khrushchev was part evil doer of black deeds, but also in part a good man who wanted to change Russia.

The gravestone seems to fit the current situation in Russia. It is a place of great thinkers, great writers, great dancers, great scientists and decent people, but it is also the land of Putin whose modus operandi is often dark and destructive. Putin is no Gorbachev!

In the present Ukrainian situation, the dark and dangerous side of Russian leadership is visible. Currently proposed Western sanctions are not persuasive. Paraphrasing, we won’t come to the G8 meeting in Sochi  and we won’t have any more relationships with your military are not earth shattering.Trade limits or sanctions, if announced, may hurt, but Russia’s ability to cut off natural gas to Europe and the Ukraine as a counter measure will marginalize any effort to develop meaningful  responses. Obama and his colleagues do not want to engage in military sanctions in order to counter Putin’s new version of our own Monroe Doctrine.

Speaking of energy, oil, and natural gas, most energy related U.S and Russian executives have not been told to slow down or avoid searching for new businesses in Russia. As a recent CNBC report indicated, “ the U.S. produces more natural gas than any other nation and Russia is now the biggest oil producer.” U.S. firms are seeking an increased stake in  Russian oil, which is light and good for gasoline.  U.S. companies are even building the rigs for Russian drillers. While the U.S. imports relatively little oil from Russia, this could change depending on price. Russia is still among the top five importers of oil to the U.S.  In light of the Russian actions in Crimea, the price of gas at the pump is expected to head up again. The stakes are high, and at the present time, no government leader in either nation has seriously suggested interfering with the export and import trade network between U.S. and Russia.

I suspect that the U.S. and Russia will eventually agree to a deal on some sort of a pullback in Crimea and the possibility of a monitored arrangement concerning Russians living in both Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine. I could be wrong. Russia could insist on remaining in or even annexing the Crimea and it could invade part of Eastern Ukraine.  I pray neither happens!

Would we react militarily in some form or manner, as we have at times in the Middle East in order to secure oil and gas supplies for the Ukraine and other needy western nations? I think not!  Such a provocation would lead to war and is  beyond the pale  for even ardent proponents of “getting tough” with Russia.  Indeed, because Russia’s military is strong, the U.S. and the West will most likely avoid any significant direct military response to possible Russian occupation/annexation of of the Crimea and even eastern Ukraine.

Possible high impact economic sanctions — different from the ‘I won’t come to your meetings and you cannot come to ours’ brand — would not be favored by most Western European countries or even the Ukraine, as they are dependent on Russia’s natural gas.  At the present time, the real options we have to counter Russia’s nefarious activities are not the best ones. While we could fulfill some of our allies’needs by exporting natural gas and oil, the decision to do so deserves (and I suspect is getting) hard analysis, especially in light of domestic U.S economic, political and security concerns about supply as well as demand and a fear of environmental problems, as well as increased consumer costs at the pump here at home. If shipping overseas passes muster, moving natural gas to our European allies and Ukraine could work both in providing needed gas and in possibly negatively affecting the price of Russian gas. Despite acknowledging the theoretical goal of oil independence, the world, including the U.S., is oil and gas dependent. We are lucky to have natural gas in ample supply, and if sane environmental regulations are applied, we can limit related methane and GHG emissions as well as other pollutants. Finally, we have an evolving and growing alternative fuel sector testing and developing renewable fuels.  Opening up U.S. fuel markets and fuel stations to increasingly available flex fuel vehicles and alternative fuels for consumers, including natural gas based ethanol and methanol, as well as electricity, can make us less dependent.

Progress on Fuel Efficiency: More is needed

Every now and then I will read a White House Blog.  They’re sort of a fun read when you’re depressed about the state of the world and the country.  The content always somehow reminds me of  Gene Kelly dancing in the street in the middle of the rain, or that old (possibly New Yorker) cartoon where the patient tells the psychiatrist that he is not doing well and the good doctor says ‘no you’re just fine, you’re happy and healthy.’  Probably neither is the proper analog to the politically necessary positive nature of the White House blurbs.  I marvel at times at the President’s ability to seek a better America, especially given the politics of the present.  While his optimism and tenacity don’t always come through as “Morning in America,” I believe that his attitude is based on a reasonable outlook about what the nation can do, if it can engage in an honest dialogue about key environmental and alternative fuel issues.

Last week’s blog focused on the White House’s effort to increase fuel efficiency standards.  It notes correctly that the President’s legislative approach to the environment has resulted in the toughest fuel economy standards in history:

“Under the first ever national program, average fuel efficiency for cars and trucks will nearly  double, reaching an average performance equivalent to about 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025….In 2011, the President also established the first-ever fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles, covering model years 2014 through 2018.”

More is to come! Increased fuel efficiency standards are currently being addressed by the Administration, and the EPA is hard at work developing Tier 3 rules.

The Administration’s record is a decent one and has benefited the environment, lessened ghg emissions, and strengthened the economy. Regrettably though, fuel efficiency regulations primarily apply to new cars.  They should be matched by a cost efficient and comprehensive federal effort to encourage the conversion of older non flex fuel vehicles; they also should encourage Detroit to continue producing larger numbers of flex fuel cars.

In this context, EPA and Detroit automakers need to reach a consensus concerning effective engine recalibration alternatives, as well as an extension of consumer warranties and related financial coverage of recalibrated vehicles.  Without permitting older cars to achieve the fuel efficiency and environmental advantages of flex fuel vehicles, we will not be able to respond to Pogo’s admonition and Commodore Oliver Perry’s initial statement (paraphrased): that we, as a nation, have met the enemy, and he is us!

To grant primacy to new or relatively new flex fuel cars would increase the nation’s ability to reduce ghg emissions and other environmental pollutants (e.g. NOx and SOx). There are well over 200,000,000 non flex fuel cars in the U.S. that cannot readily use available fuel blends higher than E-15 and will not be able to use natural gas based ethanol that hopefully relatively soon will come on the market.

Lowering the certification costs of conversion kits by the EPA and increasing the number of manufacturers of those kits would bring down their price from around 1,000 dollars to the near 300 dollar level that is common in the “underground” market.  Simplifying legal conversion could  —and indeed would —-make an important environmental difference.  Such action would also open up the fuel market to competition, and likely lower the price of gas at the pump for consumers. Finally, such actions would also support the President’s objective to wean the nation off of oil and gasoline.  Oh Happy Day!  Go for it Gene Kelly and the American Association of Psychiatrists!  It might be time to show some real love for environmentally and efficiency neglected and needy older vehicles.

Making the Case for Mars and Methanol

Robert Zubrin is one of those oddball geniuses who prowl around the peripheries of important national issues making suggestions that may seem completely off the wall but on closer inspection are revealed to have penetrating insight.

I first came across him a couple of years ago while writing about space exploration. Zubrin is perhaps the world’s leading advocate of manned trips to Mars. He’s written five books about making the trip to Mars, including How to Live on Mars (2008), which detailed how to establish a permanent colony on the red plant. None of this is going to happen soon, of course, and even though Zubrin is a highly trained aerospace engineer, it’s easy enough to dismiss him as a fatuous dreamer.

Except for one thing: he has also become the most knowledgeable and well versed advocate of substituting methanol from natural gas for imported oil as a way of breaking the back of OPEC.

Zubrin actually wrote his first highly informed book on the subject – Energy Victory – in 2008, before the fracking revolution began producing prodigious amounts of natural gas. At the time he was suggesting we use our abundant coal resources as the feedstock. Now that George Mitchell’s revolution has pumped up gas production to 24 times the level of 2007, the case is even stronger.

Zubrin has just published a 5,700-word article in the current issue of New Atlantis. I won’t do more than summarize it here, but I would recommend tying it up in a bow and giving it to everyone you know as a Valentine’s Day present. Zubrin wraps up all the major arguments for methanol and even manages to illuminate some obscure details about the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy toward methanol that eluded some of us for some time. Here are his major talking points:

  • OPEC still essentially controls the world price of oil. Even though non-OPEC production has increased 60 percent since 1973, 60 percent of the oil traded around the world is exported from OPEC countries and 80 percent commercially viable reserves are still owned by OPEC members. The price of oil is still set in the Persian Gulf.
  • This oligopolistic control has a huge impact on the American economy. Ten of the last 11 postwar recessions were preceded by sharp increases in oil prices. The recent upsurge in shale oil production won’t help much. The Energy Information Administration expects it to level off after 2016. By 2040 we will still be importing 32 percent of our oil.
  • Methanol made from natural gas is the only commodity that can realistically replace oil. “Methanol is not some futuristic dream touted by researchers seeking funding,” writes Zubrin. “Rather, it is an established chemical commodity, with a global annual production capacity of almost 33 billion gallons. It has recently been selling for around $1.50 a gallon.” Methanol’s energy content is only about 60 percent of gasoline, but the bottom line is that “pure methanol can get a car 30 percent farther down the road than a dollar of gasoline.”
  • Methanol has numerous environmental advantages. In fact, when California put 15,000 methanol cars on the road in the 1990s, it was for air pollution purposes, rather than cutting imports or reducing prices to motorists. Methanol burns cleaner, produces virtually no particulate matter or smog components, has none of gasoline’s carcinogenic aromatic compounds and reduces carbon emissions.  On pollution grounds alone, it would be worth making the transformation.

So why don’t we do it?  As Peter Drucker always said, in order to replace a well established technology, an upstart replacement must be 10 times as efficient to clear the institutional barriers. That’s a tall order. But as Zubrin details, there are some specifics that stand out:

  • In terms of sheer market capitalization, the oil industry far surpasses the auto industry. Thus, even though the auto industry might benefit from opening up to new fuels, the oil companies’ interest in maintaining the status quo overwhelms them. Zubrin documents how institutional investors that own large shares of the auto companies are even more heavily invested in oil. Several OPEC sovereign wealth funds also own huge slices of the auto companies. The Qatar Investment Authority owns 17 percent of Volkswagen, which has the highest auto company revenues in the world.  Its vice chairman sits on Volkswagen’s board.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency, through overregulatory zeal, has somehow ended up as one of the major impediments to methanol conversion, even though there would be vast environmental benefits. Although older cars can easily be converted to run on methanol at a cost of less than $200, the EPA no longer permits it. “Since 2002, the only way for a vehicle modification to be deemed lawful is if it receives certification ahead of time from the EPA or the California air-quality board. . . In 2009, the EPA specified massive fines that it may level against any individual or business that modifies a vehicles without advance certification, even if there is clear and compelling proof that no emissions increase had resulted, or even been risked, by such changes. In fact, even the use of unapproved engine parts identical to the certified brands would be considered an emissions violation . . . These fines are set at thousands of dollars for individuals and hundreds of thousands, or even millions, for manufacturers. For example, if a mechanic running his own small business converting cars to flex-fuel in his garage modified just a dozen cars, he would face a crippling fine of more than $105,000.”

In 2011 on National Review Online, Zubrin offered to bet anyone $10,000 he could modify his 2007 Chevy Cobalt (apparently in violation of EPA regulations) to run on 100 percent methanol and get 24 miles per gallon. He did it by replacing the fuel pump seal with a 41-cents replacement made from a synthetic rubber that resists methanol erosion. He also had to adjust the ignition timing for methanol’s higher octane. He would have won the bet but no one took him up.

As a way of moving the ball forward, Zubrin advocates the Open Fuel Standard Act, which has been sitting around in Congress since 2008. The present version would clear up some of the EPA’s restrictions and require at least 30 percent of each carmaker’s new vehicles be flex-fuel by 2016, moving up to 50 percent by 2107. The modification would only add about $200 to the price of the car.

Zubrin is one of those American treasures, an independent thinker operating outside the world of “policymaking” who dares think differently and big. His ideas for colonizing Mars may never get off the drawing boards.  But his proposal for substituting methanol as a domestic alternative to imported oil certainly deserves the greatest attention.

Is E85 the Solution to the Ethanol Debate?

Professor Bruce Babcock, of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development at Iowa State University, believes he has a simple solution to the corn ethanol mandate problem – encourage people to fill their tank with fuel that is 85 percent ethanol instead of the current 10 percent.

“There may be a few good reason for cutting back on our consumption of corn ethanol,” says Babcock, who holds the Cargill Endowed Chair for Energy Economics. “But the reason the EPA is giving sure isn’t one of them.”

In case you haven’t been following, the Farm Belt is in an uproar over Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision to cut back on the ethanol mandate from 14.4 billion gallons to somewhere around 13 billion for 2014. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley blames “special interests” – meaning the oil companies – while Governor Terry Brandstat has talked darkly about a “war on corn.”

But dissatisfaction with the corn ethanol mandate extends well beyond the oil companies and the refineries. In December a coalition of liberals and conservatives – led by California Democrat Diane Feinstein and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn – introduced a bill to do away with the corn mandate altogether. “I strongly support requiring a shift to low-carbon advanced biofuel,” said Feinstein, “but corn ethanol mandate is simply bad policy,” “This misguided policy has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, increased fuel prices and made our food more expensive,” added Coburn.  “The time has come to end it.”

What’s the problem?  Well, the mandate – adopted by Congress in 2007 at the behest of President George Bush, Jr. – has fallen out of sync with the “blend wall” – the theoretical 10 percent mark where ethanol starts harming car engines. The mandate pushed up to 14.2 billion gallons last year while gasoline consumption actually dropped to 135 billion gallons last year from 142 billion gallons in 2007, pushing it way past the 10 percent benchmark.

Faced with this dilemma, refiners were forced to buy “credits” in the form of “renewable identification numbers (RINS),” which give them bookkeeping credit for consuming ethanol. But the pressure on the market pushed the price of RINs from pennies per gallon to $1.40 last August, pushing up the price of gasoline. Hence the rebellion and President Obama’s apparent instructions to the EPA to cool it on the mandate for 2014.

Professor Babcock says this is all a result of the artificial barrier limiting ethanol content to 10 percent. “E85 [a blend that is 85 percent ethanol] is selling all over Iowa at 15 percent less than gasoline,” says Babcock, who is originally from southern California. “That actually makes it a little more expensive than gasoline because you only get 80 percent of the energy.  But last August E85 was selling 25 percent below gasoline and it was a bargain.  The notion that cars can’t tolerate mixes of more than 10 percent ethanol is purely fictional.”

The 10 percent blend wall is based on the premise that putting more ethanol in your tank can harm your engine. Several years ago the auto companies have announced they will not honor warrantees on older cars that use more than 10 percent ethanol. The EPA has approved E15 (15 percent ethanol) for cars built after 2001, even doing elaborate tests to prove it could work, but no one has paid much attention. “The automakers say, `We didn’t build those older cars for E15 and we don’t want them running on E15,’” says Babcock.  “As far as they’re concerned, that’s the end of it.”

Without much fanfare, however, both Ford and GM are now manufacturing close to half their cars for “flex-fuel” – capable of burning any mix of gasoline and ethanol – or even possibly methanol, which has not been tested yet. “There’s a little embossed insignia on the back of the car but it’s easy to miss,” says Babcock.  “There are now 17 million flex-fuel cars on the road, although most people who have them don’t even realize it.”

Adjusting older vehicles to flex-fuel isn’t that difficult, either.  On the oldest models, it involves only replacing a few rubber fuel lines with aluminum, which a good mechanic could do it for less than $200 – if it weren’t illegal.  On newer models it requires only an adjustment to the software.  New flex-fuel cars sell for the exact same price as ordinary gasoline vehicles.  “GM has done a really good job of figuring out flex-fuel technology,” says Babcock.  “All their trucks are now designed for it. Chrysler is coming around as well but the Japanese cars have stayed away from it.  They’re putting all their bets of hybrids, hydrogen and electric vehicles.  They’re not at all interested in biofuels.”

Babcock’s proposal, outlined in a paper released earlier this month, is for the EPA to sanction E85 so it can start selling somewhere else besides Iowa, where ethanol remains popular and corn is aplenty. “It just doesn’t make sense to have all the stations concentrated in the Midwest,” says Babcock. “The real place for these cars should be on the East and West Coasts.”

Who would pay for upgrading all these stations to handle E85?  Babcock’s answer is the oil refineries. “The cost would be about $130,000 per station or 20 cents for each additional gallon they could expect to sell,” he says.  “If the price of RINs becomes too high, the refiners will have to do something.  People call me naïve to think they will spend all that money building new pumps but they’re already done it in several instances. I’m not some wide-eyed academic economist.”

But the refineries do have another option and that is to go to Congress and the President and insist that the mandate be lowered – which is what they’ve just done. And with a rebellion against ethanol brewing in the non-farm states, it isn’t likely the mandate will be reinstated any time soon – at least until the Presidential candidates start trooping to Iowa again.  On the other hand, Babcock’s proposal for approving E85 so that the 17 million flex-fuel cars already on the road can start using it makes perfect sense.

At this point, the “blend wall” may more of a mental barrier than a physical one. Once we break through it, ethanol, methanol and a lot of other things become feasible.

There’s Gold in Them Thar’ Flares

Walter Breidenstein may be the only CEO in America who still answers the company phone himself. If his operation is still something of a shoestring, it’s because he’s spent four years trying to duel with perhaps the most formidable foe in the country, the oil companies.

“I’ve been trying to get into North Dakota for four years to show them there’s a way to make money by stopping flaring,” says the 48-year-old who started his entrepreneurial career at 15 by washing dishes. “The oil companies have done everything they can to keep me out of the state and the bureaucracy has pretty much goes along with them. The companies know that as soon as they acknowledge we’ve got a workable system here, they’d have to buy one of our rigs for every well in the state.”

North Dakota, in case you haven’t heard, has become one of the biggest wasters of natural gas in the world by flaring off $1 billion worth a year while producing carbon emissions equal to 1million automobiles.  But oil is what the drillers are after and, as it was in the early days of the oil industry; gas is regarded pretty much as a nuisance. The result is gas flares that make the whole state look like neighboring Minneapolis from outer space.

The flaring has generated a lot of negative publicity, environmentalists are up in arms and landowners have sued over lost royalties. The big guys are starting to move into the state. The New York Times ran an article this week about new pipeline construction, fertilizer factories and GE’s “CNG in a Box,” which will capture flared gas and sell it asnatural gas.

Breidenstein has a different idea.  “Somewhere around 2000 I started reading about methanol technology and realized it was a very undervalued resource,” he says. “Then I read George Olah’s The Methanol Economy in 2006 and that convinced me.  At Gas Technologies we’ve been trying to put Olah’s vision into practice.”

Gas Technologies has developed a $1.5 million portable unit that captures flared gas and converts it to methanol. “It’s a very accessible device,” says Breidenstein.  “You can move it around on a flatbed truck.”  The company ran a successful demonstration of a smaller unit at a Michigan oil well last fall but still hasn’t been able to break into North Dakota.

“The oil companies’ attitude is that money is no problem as long as they don’t have to spend it,” says Breidenstein.  “I’ve been in the business 25 years and I know where they’re coming from. But the problem is no one is forcing them to deal with flaring. And as long as they can keep throwing that stuff into the atmosphere for free, nobody’s going to look for a solution.”

You’d think with a billion dollars worth of natural gas being burning off into the atmosphere each year, though, there’d be some say to make money off it and that’s what frustrates Breidenstein.

“Our rig costs between $1 and $2 million dollars,” he says.  “But by capturing all the products of flared gas, you can make around $3500 per day.  That puts your payback at around three to four years.  But the oil companies don’t think that way. They won’t look at anything that goes out more than six months.

That puts things in the hands of state regulators and so far they have sided with the oil companies. “By statute, the oil companies are allowed to flare for a year it there’s no solution that’s economical,” says Alison Ritter, public information officer for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.  “There’s nothing we can do to require them to buy from one of these boutique firms. Many oil companies have already committed their gas to pipeline companies and they can’t back out of those contracts.”  Still, the pipelines may not be built for years. “You have to understand, the Bakken Oil Field is 15,000 square miles, the size of West Virginia,” adds Ritter.  “It’s hard to service it all with infrastructure. We’re building pipelines as fast as we can.” Of 40 applications for flaring exemptions submitted this year the state has approved two and denied one, with the other 37 pending.  While they are pending, flaring goes on.

Of course if Gas Technologies were to start receiving orders right now, they’d be hard pressed to produce a half-dozen of them let alone the 500 that the state might require. “We’ve had talks with venture capitalists but if you’re not from Silicon Valley, they’re not interested,” says Breidenstein.  “But we’ve got a business model here and we know it can work.”

At least someone has taken notice. This year Crain’s Detroit Business rated Gas Technologies Number One in the state for innovative technology, ahead of 99 other contenders, including General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Whirlpool, Dow Chemical and the University of Michigan.  “Because the Walloon Lake company’s patents are potential game-changers, its patents rank high on the value meter with a score of 156.57 (anything over 100 is considered good),” said the editors.

It may not be long before others start noticing as well.

It’s not the oil we import that makes us vulnerable, it’s the price

The United States Energy Security Council has written a brilliant report explaining why neither increased production nor improved conservation will solve our oil problems or free us from dependence on world events.

The Council numbers 32 luminaries from across the political spectrum, including such diverse figures as former National Security Advisors Hon. Robert McFarlane and Hon. William P. Clark, former Secretary of State Hon. George P. Shultz, Gen. Wesley Clark, T. Boone Pickens and former Sen. Gary Hart. The study, “Fuel Choice for American Prosperity,” was published this month.

The report wades right in, pointing out that even though our domestic production has increased and imports are declining, we are still paying as much or more for imported oil than we did in the past. The report states, “Since 2003 United States domestic oil production has risen sharply to the point the International Energy Agency projects that the United States is well on the way to surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top oil producer by 2017. Additionally fuel efficiency of cars and truck is at an all-time high. As a result of these efforts, U.S. imports of petroleum and its products declined to under 36% of America’s consumption down from some 60% in 2005.”

Good news, right? Well, unfortunately not so fast. The report adds, “None of this has had any noticeable downward pressure on global oil prices. Over the past decade the price of crude quadrupled; the value of America’s foreign oil expenditures doubled and the share of oil imports in the overall trade deficit grew from one third to about 5%. Most importantly, the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has doubled. Despite the slowdown in demand, in 2012 American motorists paid more for fuel than in any other year before.”

How can it be that all this wonderful effort at improving production still has not made a dent in what Americans pay to fill up their cars? The problem, the study says, is that OPEC still has enough monopolistic market leverage to keep the price of oil where it wants. “While non-OPEC supply has been increasing and while the world economy is growing by leaps and bounds, OPEC, which holds some three quarters of the world’s economically recoverable oil reserves and has the lowest per barrel discovery and lifting costs in the world, has failed to increase its production capacity on par with the rise in global demand. Over the past four decades, world GDP grew fourteen-fold; the number of cars quadrupled,; global crude consumption doubled. Yet OPEC today produces about 30 million barrels of oil a day (MBD) – the same as it produced forty years ago.”

This means that even though we’re doing very well in ramping up supply and reducing demand, the overall distribution of reserves around the world still weighs so heavily against us that we’re basically spinning our wheels as far as what we pay for oil is concerned. The Council sums it up succinctly: “What the U.S. imports from the Persian Gulf is the price of oil much more so than the black liquid itself.”

So, what can we do? The Council says we have to change our thinking and come up with an altogether new approach: “If we are to achieve true energy security and insulate ourselves from countries that whether by design or by inertia effectively use oil as a economic weapon against us and our allies, America must adopt a new paradigm – one that places oil in competition with other energy commodities in the sector from which its strategic importance stems: the transportation fuel market.”

In other words, quite simply, we have to find something else to run our cars. “Although this may appear to be a daunting task, our country — and the globe — is abundant in energy resources that are cost-competitive with petroleum.”

In fact, there are numerous alternatives available. We have natural gas that can be used in a variety of ways, we have biofuels and we have electricity; all of which exist in abundant supply. What prevents us from using many of these alternatives is a regulatory regime and political inertia that prevents them from being employed. “Cutting into oil’s transportation fuel dominance has only been a peripheral political objective over the past forty years with inconsistent support or anemic funding from one Administration to the next. Competing technologies and fuels to the internal combustion engine and to gasoline and diesel have often been viewed as political pet projects by the opposing party. . . . What we must do is relatively simple: level the playing field and end the decades-old regulatory advantage that petroleum fuels have enjoyed in the transportation fuel market. By pursuing a free market-oriented policy that has as its primary objective a competitive market in which fuels made from various energy commodities can be arbitraged against petroleum fuels, the United States can lead the world in placing the best price damper of them all – competition – on oil.”

The Council is particularly critical of the “multiplier” system that has allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to become the arbiter of which alternative vehicles win favorable regulatory approval. The Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards have now been set so high — 54.5 mpg by 2025 — that no one realistically expects them to be achieved. But automakers can win “multipliers” by manufacturing alternative-fuel vehicles that are counted as more than one car, thus lowering the fleet average. The value of this multiplier, however, is determined solely by the EPA.

But as the study points out, the EPA has a conflicting mandate. On the one hand, it is supposed to be cutting gasoline consumption but on the other it is concerned with cutting pollution and carbon emissions. (Just why the EPA and not the Department of Energy is administering the CAFE program is a question worth asking.) So the EPA tends to favor cars that do not necessarily improve energy consumption, but cut emissions. Thus, it awards a two times multiplier to electric vehicles and fuel cell cars by only 1.3 times for plug-in hybrids and compressed natural gas. Meanwhile, flex-fuel vehicles, which could do most for reducing oil consumption, get no multiplier at all.

The Energy Security Council has many other good recommendations to make as well. I’ll deal with them at length in a later column. But for now, the takeaway is this: Greater production and improved efficiency will only get us so far. The real key to lowering gas prices and freeing ourselves from foreign dependence is to develop alternatives to the gasoline-powered engine.