The Principal Impediment to Alternative Fuels Is – Government Regulation?

In their path-breaking study, “Fuel Choice for American Prosperity,” the Energy Security Council carefully outlines the dilemma that our complete dependence on oil for transportation has created.

“It’s not the oil we import, it’s the price,” was the way they summarized it. As I outlined in a previous post the authors show how OPEC still controls the bulk of the world’s oil reserves and has not increased its output since the 1970s. As a result, even though we have increased domestic production dramatically and cut down on consumption, we are actually paying more for our oil imports than we were ten years ago. Why?  Because, OPEC is still able to manipulate the price to keep it at $100 a barrel. It’s not the black stuff we import that crimps our economy, it’s the price of oil we must accept from a monopolistic cartel.

So what to do?  Do we set up protests outside OPEC’s corporate offices in Vienna?  Do we bring an anti-trust suit in some world forum? People have actually tried such things and gotten nowhere. No, the only way to extricate ourselves from this market is to break the monopoly that oil has on our transportation system. If oil had competitors, it will start acting like any other commodity and respond to supply and demand. The key to breaking the OPEC monopoly, says USESC, is to develop alternative fuels.

When it comes to asking why we have not made more progress in developing alternative fuels, however, USESC has a surprising answer: government regulation. Government regulation? How can that be? I thought the government was doing everything it could to foster alternatives and try to lower our oil imports. Well, as usually happens when the government gets involved in manipulating a market, things quickly get complicated and murky. Here’s what has happened:

CAFE standards. When Congress first started setting corporate fleet average standards, responsibility was given to the Environmental Protection Agency. In retrospect, this was an odd choice, since EPA is more concerned with air pollution than reducing oil consumption. The Department of Energy would have been a more logical choice. This didn’t become visible in the 1980s when pollution concerns centered on the combustion products of sulfur and nitrogen. But now that carbon dioxide and global warming have become the principal concerns, the EPA has subtly changed its emphasis. As USESC points out; “CAFE’s initial energy security centric vision has been blurred by the desire to use the law to promote greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.”

In its latest regulatory effort, for example, the EPA will reward auto companies for introducing alternative fuels by applying a “multiplier” to their corporate fleet average beginning in 2017. Every electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will count as two vehicles in the denominator of the corporate average, phasing down to 1.5 by 2021. For plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and compressed natural gas vehicles (CNG), the multiplier will be 1.6, phasing down to 1.3.

All this seems fair enough. EVs and FCVs use no gasoline and plug-in hybrids are only partially dependent on oil. The real problem, however, is that flexible-fuel vehicles – cars that are designed to burn ethanol, methanol or gasoline – have only been given credit based on how much E-85 they burn in real-world driving. The auto manufacturers have used this to avoid making improvements in car efficiency. This is regrettable because flexible fuel engines burning either ethanol from homegrown corn or methanol derived from natural gas would be the best say to cut down on imported oil. Both methanol and ethanol are liquids and fit right into our current gas station delivery system. Compressed natural gas and electricity, on the other hand, require a whole new replenishing system. Yet the EPA remains wary of both ethanol and methanol because they produce carbon exhausts. CNG also produces carbon exhausts, of course, and EVs drawing power from coal or natural gas will produce exhausts at the power plant. The EPA has tried to compensate for this by adding upstream carbon releases for EVs and other alternative fuels but it does not do the same for gasoline!  In short, the whole multiplier system is a mess. The EPA would do much better just trying to reduce oil dependence rather than bringing carbon emissions into the equation.

Costs of converting to alternative fuels: One of the most important steps in developing alternative fuels is converting existing gasoline vehicles to run on other fuels.

In general, there are three types of conversions – switching a gasoline or diesel car to run solely on another fuel (dedicated), changing a vehicles to run on higher alcohol blends (flex fuel), or installing an additional fuel tank so that the vehicles can burn the competing fuel as well (bi-fuel). In American, however, onerous regulations and staggering costs of conversion has deterred consumers.

The study points out that installing a CNG tank in an American car costs $10,000 while the same tank in Europe can be installed for $3,800. The difference is the strength of the tank as dictated by the EPA. Of course we don’t want to be in a situation such as Pakistan where CNG cars are exploding due to poor tank quality.  But even in comparison to other developed countries, U.S. regulatory requirements are excessive. 

Taxing by volume instead of by energy content: The federal and state governments places taxes on gasoline and any other product used to propel trucks and automobiles. The logic here is that the money goes into special highway trusts that maintain the roads. But the tax is imposed by the gallon rather than by energy content. USESC maintains that this is discriminatory because methanol, ethanol and other non-gasoline products have less energy density and therefore require more volume for the same amount of energy. This is a fine point and might be disputed by the oil industry, which would say if ethanol and methanol have less energy content, that is simply their tough luck. Ethanol, on the other hand, has been exempted from the federal highway tax and most state gas taxes, which is what makes it economical to add to gasoline.

The ban on methanol: Finally, although the USESC report does not even mention it, the biggest regulatory impediment to alternative fuels is the EPA’s failure to authorize the use of methanol in gas tanks. Putting anything in your gas tank requires permission from the EPA because of air pollution considerations. Although methanol actually produces less nitrous oxides and less particulate matter than gasoline, the EPA has never given it an OK. Although methanol made from natural gas might be the best alternative for replacing gasoline, it is does not yet have EPA approval.

Changing any and all of these regulations would require a huge concerted effort by some constituency that had a strong material interest in pushing it through Congress. Unfortunately, there is no such group. The natural gas industry is not yet organized around the issue and is more concerned about defending fracking and opening up natural gas exports. T. Boone Pickens is pushing CNG for trucks through his Clean Energy Fuels but there is no similar effort to promote the use of natural gas in cars. The entire farm bloc is behind corn ethanol, of course, which is why it has been so successful. But there is no similar interest promoting methanol, which may be just as good an alternative or better.

Under these circumstances, the best alternative is to persuade the auto manufacturers to produce flex-fuel vehicles that can run on any fuel – natural gas, hydrogen, biodiesel, E85 (85% ethanol) or M85 (85% methanol). The adjustment would not add significantly to the price of a new car and would open up the field to all the competitors attempting to replace gasoline.

Let the best fuel win.

Ford Leads the Way

The Ford Motor Company stepped front-and-center in the effort to fine alternatives to high-priced imported oil last week with the announcement that it will offer compressed natural gas (CNG) tank as an option in the F-150 pickup truck, its most popular brand that currently sells 700,000 models a year.

Now it won’t come cheap. There’s a $250-$350 charge for the vehicle to come “prepped” from the factory. That means putting hardened valves, valve seats, piston and rings into the V6 engine. But after that, there’s a $7-9000 charge for installing the CNG tank in the cargo bay – made considerably more expensive than in Europe because safety standards are interpreted in a way that makes them much more expensive. This lifts the showroom price from $24,000 to around $32,000. That’s a big chunk but Ford swears you’ll make it back in three years by substituting fuels.

With the price of gas at around $3.80 per gallon and the oil-equivalent of natural gas at around $1.20, those savings should add up fast.  Of course all this assumes that the price differential won’t narrow to its traditional level, but that doesn’t seem very likely now. Electrical plants have shown a tendency to move quickly back to cheaper coal if the price of gas rises, but the difference between the crack spread and the spark spread seems to have separated permanently, much to natural gas’s advantage.

All this is good news for those looking to substitute some of our abundant natural gas for foreign oil in our transport sector.  In fact, there’s a lot of progress being made right now:

Clean Energy Fuels of Newport Beach, CA already has a network of 360 natural gas fueling stations at truck stops along Interstate highways and is trying to build a complete national infrastructure.  NGV stations cost $750,000 a pop but Clean Energy is looking at the long term.  The ready availability of filling stations will help spur the conversion of giant 18-wheel diesel haulers, which most people see as the ripest target for conversion.

Heavy-duty fleet vehicles are making rapid progress.  Buses and garbage trucks are in the forefront. Eight out of ten new vehicles bought in 2012 by Waste Management, the leader in the field, were powered by natural gas.

There are now 120,000 gas vehicles on the road in the United States, according to Natural Gas Vehicles of America, the trade group.  Unfortunately, this constitutes only a tiny fraction of the 15.2 million NGVs worldwide. Iran, Pakistan and Argentina, improbably, are the leaders. We’re behind in making the transition, but there’s plenty of room to catch up.

In a report issued in June, Citi Research estimated that one-quarter of the world’s present consumption of oil could be replaced by natural gas under present conditions. More than 9 million barrels per day could be replaced in truck transport, 2 million of these in the US. Another 3 million b/d could be opted out in marine transport and 200,000 b/d in railroad locomotives.

All this would be fairly easy to transact since it involves large commercial organizations with centralized decision-making.  Sooner or later, however, this approach is likely to run up against limits.  The stumbling block will be the vastly more decentralized system of private automobiles, which still consumes 60 percent of our oil and involves a car in every garage and a gas station on every other corner. Here the problem of building an infrastructure and achieving widespread distribution is much more difficult.

The problem comes because reformers are viewing natural gas as a fuel instead of a feedstock. Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are the most readily available options – and both are legal – but in the end they are going to have their limits. It will make much more sense to use methane as a feedstock for the manufacture of liquids, methanol in particular.  These will be much easier to transport and will substitute for gasoline in current car engines with only minimum adjustment – nothing like the $8000 required for the F-150. Valero has just opted to build a $700 million methanol manufacturing plant in St. Charles, Louisiana in anticipation of this demand. All depends on whether the Environmental Protection Agency decides to give a go-ahead to use methanol in car engines. The matter is pending.

So the effort to use our abundant natural gas resources to reduce our dependence on expensive, unpredictable and unreliable foreign sources of oil is making headway. Ford’s decision to equip the F-150 with CNG is a beginning. But there’s more to come.