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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.

Building the Natural Gas Highway: The Journey of Thousands of Miles Begins in Newport Beach

California still is seen as the state that exports innovation, despite the fact that it has seen some tough economic times of late. In this context, I was pleased to see the recognition granted by the Orange County Register (Nov 6) to the Clean Energy Fuel Corporation, and its efforts to build the Natural Gas Highway. I was even more surprised to find out that the corporate offices were located near my own office. Clearly, the popularity of natural gas and its derivatives, ethanol and methanol, are on the uptake since the President’s State of the Union address indicating the nation’s economy and environment  would benefit if it weaned itself off oil and by implication gasoline. Even before Obama’s speech, there was a growing recognition among many Americans– including environmental and business leaders– that natural gas could become the core of a strategy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) and other pollutants, lowering the costs of vehicular fuel, and reducing dependency on oil imports, thus providing funds for investment in the U.S. Clean Energy Fuels Corporation, located in Newport Beach, is making it easier for consumers to access natural gas for their vehicles. According to the story in the Register, it has invested more than $300 million in the last two years on natural gas fuel stations across the nation. Most of the more than 400 stations that they have developed and  offer only compressed natural gas (CNG), a fuel that works better for comparatively short trips ( e.g. buses, taxis, garbage trucks, short hall trucks, local consumers ). Current and future placement of stations will increasingly offer liquid natural gas (LNG). LNG works better than CNG for long distance trips. Are the leaders of the Clean Energy Fuel Corporation nuts?  Maybe they are…but I don’t believe so.  While, the Corporation has yet to turn a profit (apparently after 15 or 16 years), since going public in 2007, their market value is now more than 1 billion dollars. Their phones are ringing. Large retailing companies relying on trucks, long distance trucking companies, bus manufacturers, taxis and bus companies seem to be gravitating toward use of cheaper natural gas as a fuel. But these users and potential users need assurances that natural gas fuel stations will be reasonably accessible. Clean Energy Fuel aims to provide such assurances. Many respected financial analysts believe that the Clean Energy Fuel Corporation is on the cusp of and will benefit financially from the increased acceptance and growth of alternative transportation fuels, particularly natural gas. Assuming both the sizable price gap between oil and natural gas remains and the corresponding price gap between natural gas fuel and gasoline as well as between natural gas and diesel fuel stays relatively large; Clean Energy Fuel Corporation’s future looks bright. Yes, it will have rivals. Shell Oil, according to the Register article, apparently is going to start selling LNG at existing truck stops. Soundings that I have picked up from natural gas leaders, CEOS of businesses dependent on trucking and diverse investors suggest an evolving interest in developing both CNG and LNG fuel stations and the Natural Gas Highway. In this context, 22 states, under the bipartisan leadership of Governor John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado and Governor Mary Fallin (R) of Oklahoma, have initiated a collaborative project to buy CNG outfitted cars from Detroit to replace old state vehicles, when their time passes. Detroit in turn has promised to develop a less expensive CNG vehicle for the participating states which could ultimately benefit consumers. Given recent projections of the market for natural gas fuel by government and reputable private and nonprofit groups and increased advocacy for alternative fuels by a coalition of environmental, nonprofit and business groups, I wouldn’t bet against Clean Energy Fuel’s future health. My hope, however, is that it and, indeed, its competitors add room for natural gas derivatives such as ethanol and methanol in their planned natural gas stations.  Apart from generating use by owners of flex fuel cars now in existence, their agreement to do so would encourage (the relatively inexpensive and easy) conversion of existing vehicles to flex fuel vehicles. Significantly, EPA has certified the use of E10 in all vehicles, E15 in vehicles after 2001 and E85 in approved flex fuel vehicles. Hopefully, EPA will soon certify methanol as well as approve an expanded list of conversion kits for existing older vehicles. These approvals are possible, if not probable, given the environmental, economic and consumer benefits of alternative fuels and the evolving politics of fuel. Allowing oil companies to sustain the very restrictive rules now governing the vehicular fuel market will continue to prop up America’s dependency on imported oil as well as support relatively high fuel costs and increased environmental degradation.   President and CEO Andrew Littlefair of Clean Energy Fuel indicated, “With cheaper, abundant fuel, a network of stations, [and] redesigned engines …the time for natural gas transportation has arrived.” I would add, the time for natural gas based ethanol and methanol has also arrived. I commend Clean Energy Fuel for its initiative in developing the Natural Gas Highway. The Company, borrowing from President John Kennedy, has begun an important journey of thousands of miles in Newport Beach. Contrary to (and paraphrasing) the poet Robert Frost, hopefully the road they are building will be very well travelled.  Maybe a couple of leisurely  lunches near the ocean in beautiful Newport Beach could convince my colleagues at Clean Energy Fuel  to consider working with producers of natural gas based ethanol and methanol as well as interested states and localities to  extend  the Natural Gas Highway to ethanol and methanol. It would be good for traffic and their bottom line, good for development of related commercial activities and, most important, good for America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Model building, Playboy and the impact of ethanol on gasoline prices

I recently read a number of provocative articles (or their summaries) by MIT’s Christopher Knittel and Aaron Smith. They faulted a pair of respected researchers from Iowa State University, Dermot Hayes and Ziaodong Du, in somewhat harsh tones. According to Knittel, the Iowa State pair, in their ethanol-related studies over a three year period (from 2009 through 2012), exaggerated the impact of ethanol on gas prices using relatively low present day ethanol blends.

I thought I was reading the script for a new urban crime show about drugs. Knittel, frequently, used terms like crack ratio and crack spread, ostensibly to note the weak link, found by Hayes at Iowa State, between the prices of ethanol and oil and both to gas costs at the pump. According to the authors, the price of gasoline is not substantially affected by the crack ratio; that is, the relative value of gasoline compared to oil or the price of gasoline divided by the price of oil and the current volume of its ethanol content.

Knittel’s papers angered Hayes, of the Iowa study. He claimed that, over time, the crack ratio and crack spread reflected a pretty strong causal relationship to gas prices. Language in his response to Knittel’s critique reminded me of those wonderful days when I was a dean, listening to different faculty, sometimes personally and sometimes based on methodology, criticize other faculty based on differing research results. The search for academic truth is often a noble road, but paraphrasing Robert Frost, a “road less traveled” — a road often full of human frailty and intellectual potholes.

Despite their critique of each other, both Knittel and Hayes’ studies are important and both, when read in context, should help one better understand the role of ethanol in affecting the cost of gas at the pump. Knittel is more right than wrong when he indicates that the crack ratio and spread does not fully explain the effect of ethanol on gas and oil prices, over time, and he is also correct in challenging the model used by Hayes to identify a reduction of $0.89 to $1.09 on gas prices because of higher ethanol production and higher crude oil prices.

Hypothetically, in isolation from other variables, the higher the crack ratio, the higher the price of gasoline. Further, if the price of ethanol is relatively low or on a downward trend, increased use of ethanol in gasoline blends, in theory, would cause the crack ratio to go down and the spreads to be higher, assuming gas prices remain the same or increase. Good news for consumers! Right? Maybe? Not always? Not at all? Not sure? What if?

I cannot claim real modeling expertise and would not, even for a minute, arbitrate between Knittel and Hayes concerning their use of models and its result — in terms of Hayes, significant impact of ethanol, in terms of Knittel, minor impact of ethanol.

But in terms of the policy argument between them, I suspect Knittel comes out the winner (full disclosure: I did graduate from MIT and while I love Iowa’s rolling hills, I do not like the climate and the fact that the state does not have a great symphony, nor a NFL football or American League baseball team). He points out that the crack ratio’s fluctuations in the ‘80s occurred when oil prices both declined and increased. Ethanol was not a factor and the movements in the crack ratio were not based on ethanol production. He seemingly, correctly, faults the folks in Iowa for not using the crack spread model in their 2011 and 2012 papers to evaluate the impact of eliminating ethanol because the two models —crack ratio which they used and crack spread which they didn’t — produce significantly different results and policy implications.

What does the dispute over models and model use have to do with public policy? A lot! The ethanol supporters touted the Iowa studies to support their claim that increased ethanol use reduces costs to consumers in a major way. Conversely, the ethanol critics suggest that the Knittel analysis debunks the assertion that use of ethanol as a blend will reduce gas prices in a major way.

Knittel suggests the Iowa studies vastly overstate the cost-related benefits of ethanol to the consumer and that Iowa’s model disregards or blurs the effect of price changes and swings in price of both ethanol and oil. Knittel also indicates that that the relationships between oil and gas prices, as well as oil, gas and ethanol prices are much less precise and more complicated than indicated by Hayes’ modeling efforts. Prices of all three fuels are much more subject to behavior and external events than acknowledged by either Knittel or Hayes.

The dialogue between Knittel and Hayes is helpful in sorting cost and price issues regarding ethanol and gasoline. I hope they continue at it, with less emotion, and with analyses better grounded in methodological analyses that generate a better job of linking model building with experience and empiricism. Meanwhile, no matter whether you believe the effect of ethanol on gas prices is high, moderate or low, if the U.S. government acquiesces in the use of higher ethanol blends like E60 and E85, and if the cost spread between ethanol and gasoline continues, an increasingly visible positive impact on fuel prices will likely be witnessed at the pump. Apart from any possible price differential related to use of higher blends, increased use of ethanol as an alternative transitional transportation fuel is in the public interest. According to most reputable studies, such use will respond well to many environmental problems caused by gasoline and it will help reduce America’s need to import oil…a continuing security problem.

Epilogue: I once taught a reasonably popular class on policy development and models. To liven up the class, I told the students that economic and policy models are abstractions of reality and to the extent that the models’ abstractions helps students understand reality, they are “good” models. They asked for examples. It was a late evening and I was tired. I told them to go look at the centerpieces in Playboy and Playgirl. Both presented models of airbrushed men and woman. At our next class, I asked the students if the models increased their understanding of men and women. They were bright and eager students, at least for this assignment, and they indicated, “No.” The models tilted too far toward abstractions and too far away from real world experience. They seemed to learn a lesson about the value of at least some models.

Make love, not war — a national dialogue on alternative fuels

Remember the passion, the commitment and vigorous national dialogue concerning the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement? No matter how one viewed the issues involved or whether one was pro or con with respect to each initiative, most of the nation, even if only watching the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news, seemed involved, to some extent, emotionally and many intellectually.

Given the concern many Americans seem to have for the future of the environment, the nation’s security problems and the sluggish economy (not to mention shrinking pocketbooks), why haven’t we been able to replicate the intense passions and commitments of the ‘60s and early ‘70s with respect to the muted debate over alternative transitional fuels. Very few articles in the press or on cable and TV headline the wisdom of efforts to reduce America’s dependence on gasoline through providing increased consumer choices at the pump. Those that do approach headline or first-tier status suggest, generally, often without hard analysis, that increased oil and gas production (Saudization of America) will grant the U.S. oil independence, forgetting the global nature of the oil market. The media has not focused on the costs of continued reliance on imported oil and the very restricted American vehicular fuel market limiting consumers, by and large, to costly, dirty gasoline. In-depth coverage of alternative non-renewable fuels as substitutes for gasoline and as transitional fuels before renewables are ready for prime time is rare and most times, more opinion than fact. Even the venerable New York Times rarely covers alternative transitional fuels in the context of an overall assumed national commitment to “wean” the nation off of gasoline.

Why haven’t the public and the media become involved in a real dialogue concerning the benefits and costs of alternative fuels versus continued reliance on gasoline?

I think it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. Recall the intense TV coverage of Bull Connor’s vicious attack using dogs and high pressure hoses on kids in Alabama and the nobility of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech on the mall? Both gripped us and made civil rights a moral issue. Remember TV’s extensive coverage of the marches by mostly young but also many older folks opposing the Vietnam War? And who could forget the photo of the little girl walking alone on the highway with her clothes burned off from a napalm attack and the many movies portraying G.I. casualties? It was difficult to stay neutral concerning the war, particularly if our kids or the neighbor’s kids were involved. Finally, while some Americans disagreed with them, the women’s movement had visible charismatic leaders like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Betty Ford, who had a knack for getting on TV and in newspapers to champion the need for women’s equality. Over time, they reached many of us, and if we didn’t join the movement, we argued for its success.

President Obama’s State of the Union speech was greeted with popular applause when he said we must get off of oil, but the line concerning the need to wean us off oil seem to have a shelf life of 24 hours…or maybe 48 hours. It clearly didn’t move the needle much in public interest and the public’s attention understandably turned to more media-friendly issues, such as Washington’s dysfunctional character, the budget, the debt ceiling and the Middle East.

Anti-Vietnam sentiments, civil rights and women’s rights were internalized by a relatively large, but still a minority, sector of the public. Participants in the effort to secure change viewed the three issues as affecting them personally and, for the most part, crossed class and caste lines, a fact that was deepened by the draft with respect to Vietnam. Although none of the three probably could have secured a majority vote,if placed on the ballot initially, they each grabbed the attention of most Americans over time.

Looking back, clearly the sustained involvement of a relatively cohesive minority of the public led by aggressive leadership created significant political and policy reforms. Issues were cast in terms Americans could easily understand — securing justice, freedom and a better America. They created a strong moral underpinning to proposed actions. Ultimately, grassroots support convinced key elected leaders that they could move positively without retribution to secure respective agendas.

Enveloping alternative fuels and the monopolistic gasoline markets in moral tableaux will not be easy. The issues involved are complex and don’t, without effort, engage people for more than short periods of time. They are tough to convert to brief TV or cable spots. Try going to a dinner party and raising moral variables around the reality of limited choices of consumers at the pump. Yawn…don’t expect a return invitation! Similarly, the fact that low-income households pay nearly 15% of their income for gasoline and are therefore limited concerning purchase of other basic goods does not easily translate into visual and visceral understandable, personal moral pictures. Similarly, despite the data showing increasing harm to the poor regarding the journey to work and constrained housing choices caused by high costs of gasoline, aggregate statistics blur individual problems. The economy’s overall sluggishness and its impact on most Americans, except the very affluent, divert focused attention. Happily, there is no Bull Connor, and your neighborhood gasoline station owner is often from the community. It’s difficult to make him or her an ogre. He or she is generally a hard-working individual and is struggling to make ends meet. Even the most vigorous advocates of alternative fuels and open fuel markets have yet to figure out how to vividly personalize the negative impact of the constraints imposed on the market by the oil industry on consumers, particularly low income consumers. Black hats and mustaches (whether painted in graphics or narratives) to describe the oil industry’s leadership, hasn’t worked well. Where is Norman Rockwell when we need him?

The phrase “we need all of the above” is used often in a bipartisan way by our political leaders to describe the nation’s energy strategy. The phrase may well be true, but it is difficult to get excited about it. Try it on your husband, wife or significant other tonight and see if it motivates a meaningful response. “Hey, honey, there is a meeting tonight of people interested in energy reform. The expansion of alternative fuel choices will be at the center of a strategy to grant priority to all our energy sources — coal, oil, natural gas, bio fuels, derivatives of each. It’s important. Do you want to go?” Probable response: “Are you serious? You were so romantic when I met you. What happened?”

The messages related to Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, at the time, were simplified into understandable, often emotional, terms. They were complemented by extensive media coverage and by strong moral certitude of both presenters and listeners. Parsed words and nuanced sentences were not often needed to convince folks to join the causes. The coalitions that were created put in hard work and lots of sweat equity to build and generate grassroots efforts. But the people were out there waiting to be recruited. While members might have disagreed on strategic policy options, they were generally together on broad objectives.

The effort to secure alternative transitional fuels and open up the gasoline market does not lend itself easily to the type of grassroots initiatives generated in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The messages and data used to support them are seen as too complicated and, frankly, confusing to potential grassroots participants. In this context, the oil industry and its captive groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) have big budgets and have seen fit to use their resources seemingly to confuse and distort information concerning gasoline and alternative fuels.

I am not sure a passionate grassroots movement can be created to support alternative fuels. At best, it will be difficult. But, democracy works in many ways. Progress is being made in forging working alliances among advocates of alternative fuels and leaders in the business, environmental, public sector and academic communities. Their ability to form sustainable, strong alliances will increase their likely ability to influence public policy concerning transitional fuels and open fuel markets. Building public understanding, combined with political acuity and a willingness to reach out to varied groups, will increase the odds of success in winning political, legislative and statutory support. Much will depend on their collective willingness to depart from traditional divisive ideological and institutional focus. Their leadership, borrowing the rhetoric from the Vietnam War, will probably have to learn how to make love, not war, in developing a collaborative agenda.