Bipolar, manic depressive and natural gas

Although a bit bipolar concerning the data, the editors of Real Clear Energy published a useful graph and narrative on Tuesday. It showed the slow, steady increase of natural gas use in the U.S. over the past few years. The graph and narrative noted a 33% increase in vehicle fuel consumption since 2007. More good news for those who support natural gas, given its ability to reduce GHG emissions: the editors reported that the T. Boone Pickens’ “Natural Gas Highway” appears to offer hope that the trend will continue upward. Indeed, the EIA indicates that natural gas will increasingly substitute for gasoline in the truck, bus and rail freight sectors. So much good news! However, don’t open the champagne yet!

Now the bad news! Despite the increasing popularity of natural gas, over the next 25 years, the editors suggest it will only replace or displace 3% of the nation’s oil budget. What a bummer! But, paraphrasing Frank Sinatra (the noted oil man turned singer), when you have “your chin on the ground, there’s a lot to be learned, so look around… [we’ve] got high hopes…all problems just a toy balloon, they’ll be bursted soon, they’re just bound to go pop”…cause we’ve got high hopes.

Thanks Frank. Now, back to the editors. They correctly advised their readers that we, as a nation, will “never make any real progress until we start using liquid methanol and ethanol in regular passenger cars.” I assume the editors mean that we should increase the amount of ethanol in our cars. All of us now use at least 10% ethanol when we fill-er-up. Some of us, if we are lucky and have a flex-fuel vehicle (over 17 million of us do, but likely don’t know it), can use E15 and E85, assuming we can find a station with the necessary pumps. With the exception of a few states, such pumps are relatively few and far between. Sales of E15 and E85 constitute only a small share of the fuel market.

Why? Neither ethanol not methanol is a perfect fuel. Yet, study after study indicates that, on most dimensions, they are better than gasoline. Both are cheaper, both are generally environmentally superior and both emit less GHG emissions. Competition with gasoline from both would allow the U.S. to become less dependent on oil imports and add to our nation’s security. Over time, opening fuel markets to consumers by adding choice would likely help stabilize, and even reduce, the price of gasoline and limit its frequent nonstructural cycles.

As a former dean of a major School of Public Policy, I would gladly supervise a Ph.D. thesis or an “independent” student study concerning consumer decisions relative to the purchase of gasoline vs. replacement fuels, particularly ethanol and the acquisition of new or the conversion of existing cars to FFV status. The student could start off with some reasonable, contextual assumptions and/or hypotheses. For example:

1. Consumer decisions about alternative fuels often must be speculative, given the fact that oil companies, most times, prohibit their franchises from adding a replacement fuel pump or require them to put the pump in a hidden sidebar location.

2. There are sufficient anecdotes that price management is also a barrier to the development of competitive fuel markets. Data descriptive of the life cycle of ethanol suggests that costs for production, distribution and sales would permit ethanol to compete well, price-wise, with gas. However, anecdotes suggest that producers, distributors, blenders and retail stations — including independent stations — often raise or lower the price of gasoline relative to replacement fuels, which often impedes real consumer choice. There are no angels here. Retail stations carrying E85 have been known to raise its price to capture extra revenue.

3. Although the gap is narrowing in light of technological improvements, replacement fuels, including ethanol, get less mileage per gallon than gasoline. But, as noted earlier, the costs at the pump, if recognized in the price per gallon, generally work out in favor of ethanol. However, consumers find the calculations difficult to make without the addition of simple signs at the pump, a willing and patient station attendant, or an app in your hand. As a rule of thumb, replacement fuels should be at least 22% cheaper than gasoline to cement the deal for a knowledgeable consumer.

4. Despite EPA studies and approvals to the contrary, groups mainly associated with, supported by or historically favorable to the oil industry have planted the worry seed in car owners’ minds. E15 and, likely E85, they say, will damage engines that are actually built to use both. Saying it often enough has likely made many consumers consciously or subconsciously avoid replacement fuels like ethanol. The best answer to bad speech — whether written or oral — is good speech. Yet, only a handful of writers, editors, TV and cable anchors have responded to negative stories and rumors about replacement fuel safety.

I could go on. But I am over my word limit. Thank you, Real Clear Energy, for making me manic depressive — my friends would say it’s a rather normal state. I hope the brief comments by your editors will be discussed over and over again by others and stimulate strategies to increase the use of natural gas based ethanol, and someday soon, the legalization of methanol.

Oregon’s gas prices the most expensive in the lower 48

Our rank: Oregon’s gas prices are third most expensive in the nation for the second week in a row. Only Hawaii ($4.30) and Alaska ($4.06) are more expensive, making Oregon’s prices the most expensive in the 48 contiguous states.


Paul Harvey, the rest of the news and natural gas

Paul Harvey was a conservative icon in radio news during the mid to end of the 20th century. While I often differed with the substance of his commentary, he was a welcome travel partner when driving, particularly on a long trip. What I liked most about him was that he generally articulated his views without being malicious, and his voice was just wonderful. He sounded like a symphonic rap musician, using iambic pentameter.

One of Harvey’s favorite phrases was here’s “the rest of the story.” Remembering it, gives me a wonderful opening for this column.

This week there were several optimistic articles on natural gas growth this past week . One article in particular caught my eye. The piece described the expanded, but still relatively low, market penetration of natural gas as a transportation fuel. Given the cost and environmental benefits of natural gas, I was pleased to read the content and see the numbers and quotations. But in Paul Harvey’s terms it did not tell “the rest of the story”!

Yes, natural gas is making inroads into the trucking industry, even among buyers of new cars, asserts the article. “The boom in natural gas production in the U.S. has ignited a revolution in the auto sector that could reshape the way Americans fuel their vehicles, market participants and analysts said in a week-long special on FOX Business.” ClearView Energy Partners, the Newport Beach, California company that is building fuel stations along major interstate trucking corridors, will likely facilitate the growth of natural gas as a fuel in trucks. It will provide one of the missing pieces that have impeded natural gas’ popularity — fear of running out of fuel. “About 25% of the truck market could convert to natural gas by 2020, according to a report by Citigroup…eight in 10 new trucks Waste Management brought in 2012 were powered by natural gas.” Your friendly bus driver’s bus is increasingly likely to run on natural gas.

“Only a tenth of a percent of natural gas consumed in U.S. last year was used for fuel in vehicles, according to the Energy Department. Of the more than 15.2 million natural gas vehicles on roads across the globe, [only] about 120,000 are in the U.S.” Natural gas clearly hasn’t taken off yet as a transportation fuel in the U.S. Kevin Book, ClearView’s managing director of research indicates that, “I think you look at locomotives, also a very interesting and potentially large market, and also some of the marine applications before you start talking about smaller passenger cars.” I suspect his negative perceptions of natural gas as a competitive fuel in cars stems from the present costs of CNG passenger vehicles and the present absence of CNG fuel stations — a possible temporary problem if ClearView’s commitment to develop a natural gas highway could extend to private automobiles. We have had many successful freedom movements in this country. There would be only relatively marginal costs to extend the capacity of the natural gas highway’s fuel stations to include CNG availability for all consumers of natural gas vehicles and to assure availability of natural gas derivative fuels like ethanol. If you build it, many of the 17 million FFVs now on the road will come and more will follow, given what’s presently on the (near term) horizon.

Here is more of “the rest of the story,” à la Paul Harvey. One of the most innovative programs to stimulate the use of natural gas, CNG, was initiated by Gov. Hickenlooper and Gov. Fallin. Under their nonpartisan umbrella, 22 states have agreed to replace older cars, when they are due to retire, with CNG cars. Their commitment will create a large pool of CNG purchases over the next few years. Detroit has agreed to work with the states and both the governors and carmakers want to use the effort to produce a less expensive CNG car for American households.

But there is more! Two companies, Coskata, Inc. and Celanese have had success in converting natural gas to ethanol and are both striving to commercialize and define strategies to market their product. If they are successful, other companies will follow in light of historical “copycat capitalism.” The result will be a fuel that will be environmentally better and clearly cheaper than gasoline. The result will also be increased demand for fuels like E85, which will generate consumer purchases of FFVs and the conversion of existing, older cars. It may also open up the pockets of investors concerning the support for future E85 pumps. If ethanol becomes popular because of price and environmental objectives, can methanol be far behind (excuse me, Percy)? Freedom to choose what you drive and what fuel you use on the high and bi ways of this nation would be consistent with the American way and creed.

Refinery production down – pump prices up

Over the past five days, average retail gasoline prices have risen more than four cents per gallon in Oklahoma and even more dramatically in eight other Heartland states. Since the end of July, pump prices have jumped 13 cents in Ohio and 11 cents in both Indiana and Michigan. These increases can be traced back to refinery problems and maintenance issues at several facilities supplying the region: two in Kansas (HollyFrontier in El Dorado and the CVR plant in Coffeyville), BP’s refinery in Whiting, Ind., and ExxonMobil’s facility in Joliet, Ill.


Bring back Woodstock and passion, and bring on replacement fuels

The ‘60s and early ‘70s were exhilarating at times and depressing at other times. America seemed angry and divided about the Vietnam War, the struggle over civil rights and equal rights for women. Many of those who were against the war and supported civil rights for minorities and equal rights for women were passionate about their views and saw themselves as change agents in an America that they viewed as perfectible but not perfect. They debated, they marched, they shouted, they irritated, and they (at times) exceeded legal boundaries. Some even took personal risks by becoming Freedom Riders in the south. By the early ‘70s, they had made a positive difference. They had become legends in their own time, capped off by Woodstock — an exotic, culture-changing, music rebellion concert. America would never again be the same!

I ask myself why the effort to break up the oil industry’s monopoly at the gas pump has won intellectual interest among some, but not the passion and the emotion of the ‘60s. No one is riding in a vehicle column through the nation, stopping at gas stations to plead for an opportunity for consumers to choose among alternative or replacement fuels. No one is shouting en masse about the extensive environmental harm and economic loss caused by our reliance on gasoline. Very few are concerned with the widening income gap and increasing poverty in America. Where is the concern about the negative impact that gas prices have on the purchasing power of the poor?

Surprisingly, very few Americans seem worried that most of the wars we are fighting either overtly or covertly involve (to some degree) our or our allies’ dependence on oil and, sometimes, lead to our becoming allied with some unsavory folks. I keep remembering a relatively recent conversation I had with a special services soldier who quite clearly indicated that he and his colleagues believed the U.S. was in Iraq not because of the quest for democracy or freedom, but because of the West’s need for oil. He indicated that it was b.s. — all this talk about building democracy. Whether it’s Iraq, Syria, or Egypt, Americans themselves are having growing doubts about why we have been, are now, or might be in the future, involved in Middle Eastern wars. Many, if not most, hope that their kids are not the first in and the last out.

What is it going to take to stimulate the adrenaline of Americans when it comes to the oil industry’s ability to limit competition at the gas pump through price management, franchise agreements, and political muscle in Congress? I suspect the draft helped energize the public’s antipathy toward the Vietnam War, but for the most part, the anti-Vietnam movement secured the intense support of only a minority of Americans. Indeed, polls at the time indicated that both the women’s and the civil rights movements also had less than majority support. Yet, in all three instances, the overlapping minorities among the population wielded a big political voice, bigger than their numbers.

Why? I suspect media-savvy, bright, and committed leadership had much to do with it. Further, they were helped by the tragic assassinations of President Kennedy; his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy; and Martin Luther King, Jr. Growing public distrust of politicians caused by the gap between the facts on the ground and press releases concerning Vietnam increased the willingness of the American public to support the marchers. Polls began to shift on the war, civil rights, and equality for women. All three issues won increasing numbers and granted legitimacy to efforts to end the war and to assist the “have nots” and the “have less” among us. Given the federal budget authorizations and appropriations, an argument could be made that the halcyon days of the Great Society actually occurred during the first years of President Nixon. This is not heresy. Look at the budget details from 1965 through the early ‘70s.

Can we replicate the passion associated with the Vietnam War, civil rights and women’s rights movements and focus it on more democracy and freedom for consumers concerning choice of fuels? Probably not! The issues involved are difficult to grasp for the public. It is unlikely that families will sit down at the dinner table and stimulate conversation on the benefits and costs of replacement fuels or flex-fuel vehicles. Americans are not going to “March on Exxon” as they did on the Pentagon or gather at the National Mall in D.C. in the hundreds of thousands as they did for civil rights.

The term “silent majority” has been used without a hard and sustained predictable meaning in the last four or five decades. It’s a phrase that needs amplification and definition today. It could become the missing public change agent concerning replacement fuels. Coalition building among supportive pro-environmentalists, businesses, consumers, and anti-poverty groups could lead to the development of multitasked, innovative, and interactive national education program with a broad reach (e.g., town meetings, the newspaper and website articles, webinars, Twitter, movies, YouTube, etc.). Its success could convert a now-silent majority or near majority into a thoughtful, articulate majority focused on breaking up the monopoly at the pump. Success would be reflected in poll numbers supportive of federal, state, and local leaders who are willing to push for open fuel markets and increased FFVs. There would be a coalition of the willing; that is, an increasing number of Americans who would provide backbone to public policymakers who, in turn, would commit to challenging the oil companies’ understandable desire to sustain restricted fuel markets and the status quo favoring gasoline over environmentally better, safer, and cheaper replacement fuels. Their support would be conveyed through voting, and the use of innovative communication technology, rather than marching. The results would be illustrated by new, important, expanded democratically made choices by you and me, regarding fuel and vehicles — and maybe a new Woodstock composed of music celebrating America’s new freedoms. I didn’t go to the last one, but will go to the next one celebrating expanded choice for consumers, a healthier economy, and an improved environment. ­

Refinery issues cause gas prices to rise

Average retail gasoline prices in Fort Wayne have risen 11.1 cents per gallon in the past week, averaging $3.53 a gallon Sunday, Augus t10, 2014 according to GasBuddy’s daily survey of 201 gas outlets in Fort Wayne. This compares with the national average that has fallen 1.7 cents per gallon in the last week to $3.47 a gallon, according to gasoline price website which powers’s Gas Gauge.

Will flex fuel save you money?

First the good news: Gasoline prices are at their lowest level in months, according to AAA. Now more good news. Flex-fuel prices have been falling, too, and are about $1 less per gallon than regular gasoline now, according to the Kiplinger Agriculture Letter.So maybe you’re scratching your head wondering what flex fuel is and why you should care that it’s cheaper than gas.

E85, or flex fuel, is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that can be used in vehicles specially designed to run on it as well as regular gasoline. There are more than 10.6 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. You might even be driving one and not realize it.


USA, USA, USA…The search for competitive fuel choices

“USA, USA, USA, USA.” No, I didn’t just come from watching the U.S. playing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But after reading the glowing, cheerleading, overly enthusiastic, often-nationalistic media accounts of the U.S. overtaking the Saudis in oil production, the win-lose aspects of the soccer chant somehow became embedded in my persona (like counting sheep or gas pumps at night when I can’t sleep). We beat the Saudis at their own game — oil. We’re number one…wow! Next, will we emulate the Saudis and place onerous and discriminatory restrictions on women drivers and, unlike the Saudis, argue that it’s a conservation measure? Of course not! We don’t have to be number one in everything. But oil does make strange bedfellows, and equally strange behavior, as well as policies.

Unfortunately, most of the media stories avoid analysis of what the new oil prominence of the U.S. means to the nation and world. Yes, increased production likely means less dependence on the Middle East, particularly Saudi oil. Indeed, we now import about 33% of oil needs, the lowest percentage in years.

But oil independence remains a myth. Oil interests are pushing for a reduction of regulations concerning exports of U.S. crude oil and have always exported considerable refined oil products allowed by the law. Their motives, despite frequent public comments to the contrary, are generally to sell to the price, which means to the buyer who offers the most return. He, she or it frequently is a global purchaser. Independence is a slogan that often blurs motive and reflects good politics but bad substance and contrary to reality.

The U.S., as the most powerful western nation, irrespective of any mathematical domestic surplus, will continue to extend its role as defender of the global supply chain from the Middle East or elsewhere. While we may be less dependent on foreign oil, U.S. leaders have, in the past, and likely will in the future, use a combination of diplomacy and military threats and action to defend and sustain the flow of foreign oil to allies or assumed allies. In this context, the role we play in the world extends our dependency. Unfortunately, wars will be fought and U.S. soldiers will die because of this felt dependency.

Most of the “USA, USA, USA” chants in the media coverage of our new oil prowess, implicitly neglects the difficult juxtaposition between increased oil production and supplies and higher gas prices. Less dependence hasn’t brought the reduction, or even stabilization, of gas prices promised by the oil industry. Gasoline in California is now generally well over $4 a gallon for regular, and averages over $3.60 a gallon across the nation. Why? We have a surplus, don’t we? Oil companies want to export more, and it appears that they will be able to do just that, soon. As Dr. Pangloss asked in “Candide,” is this the “best of all possible worlds” (let me add, for the U.S.)?

Clearly, the cost of oil at the pump is not strongly linked (at the present time) to the amount of U.S. oil that shows up on EIA calculations and projections. Both price and supply are going up simultaneously. Yes, there is uncertainty, given events in the Middle East and yes, uneven growth around the world has increased demand in some areas and suppressed it in others. The link between high prices and the Middle East is difficult to measure precisely. Consumer costs per gallon are likely affected more by investors, as well as speculation on Wall Street, than the actual numbers concerning increased production of U.S. oil.

So, apart from prayer and penitence, what can we do to get a better deal for consumers, and to prevent gasoline from becoming a negative factor concerning U.S. GDP growth and the environment? How can we help assure that being number one means robust economic growth, more income in the wallets of Americans (particularly low-income Americans), increased security and fewer dirty emissions?

These are not easy questions, and they do not lend themselves to simple ideological responses. Clearly, as renewable fuels and vehicles that meet the incomes and desires of most Americans become available, both will play a vital role in America’s future. But reliance on coal-fired utilities for power in some areas of the nation, battery costs, mileage limitations from single battery charges, and lack of infrastructure impede their ability to have a significant positive impact at the present. The market for renewable fuels and vehicles is relatively small and will remain so until technological advances catch up with potential demand.

Where is the Greek philosopher Diogenes when we need him? We have a path in front of us that would buy time toward a better American future, one that could offer competition to gasoline — competition that would be good for the economy, the consumer and the environment. Increased availability of replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol, combined with large-scale conversion of older cars to flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and increased production of new FFVs by Detroit, would give gasoline a run for the money, if gas-only stations become fuel stations and provide consumers with a choice. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, less than one percent of all gas stations in the U.S. that are branded by the big oil companies offer E15 or E85.

I remain an optimist that more freedom will reign soon at the pump. The noted people’s philosopher, Charles M. Schulz, creator of “Peanuts” comic strips, lessened my fears about the future when he said, “Stop worrying about the world ending today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.” USA, USA, USA. Fuel choice, fuel choice, fuel choice!