4 Non Blondes, The King and I and alternative fuels

4-non-blondes-650-430“Twenty-five years [lots more years for me] and my life is still
Trying to get up that great big hill of hope
For a destination”

Combine the lyrics from 4 Non Blondes with the personal frustration suggested by the “it’s a puzzlement” comment from the King of Siam in “The King and I,” expressed when he was perplexed by a changing world, and you will understand why many are confused by three relatively recent actions that limit or impede the growth of alternative fuels.

Most advocates of consumer choice at the pump and the end of Big Oil’s near-monopoly concerning transportation fuel praised the president’s State of the Union address a couple of years ago. He proposed that the nation wean itself off of oil. Wow, some fuel choice advocates were thrilled, almost orgiastic. Just think, in a couple of years customers might search for fuel stations selling a range of lower-cost alternative fuels, instead of only gasoline. Environmentalists welcomed the president’s comments. Less pollution and fewer GHG emissions! Most economists were pleased. They saw more jobs and further GNP growth. Servicemen were happy. They would be asked to fight fewer wars for oil.

In this context, there was hope that the cheaper cost of oil, and its derivative, gasoline — both of which are now rising in cost — juxtaposed with the regulations resulting from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Shell’s failure to use its original drilling permit to drill successfully and the availability of less expensive competitive fuels, would end the prospect of drilling in the pristine Arctic Circle off of Alaska’s coast. It would be just too costly. Good news! We can dream, can’t we!?

Similarly, some of my colleagues and friends who support fuel choice and a better shake for consumers than gasoline (concerning costs and GHG emissions), were hoping that improved technology, lower prices, and inventions like Elon Musk’s just-announced solar storage unit, could soon generate an increased ability for solar energy to power many coal-fired utilities, homes and even vehicles. In the aggregate, the U.S. would produce significantly fewer emissions and pollutants. What a welcome, possible, short-term happening! Musk for president!

The increased popularity of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) from Tesla (among those who can afford them) and the emergence of cheaper battery-powered vehicles from Detroit have also lent hope to those who are fuel agnostic or favor a long-term, robust renewable fuel market and more consumer choices at the pump. While electric cars offer a vision of the future, their broad acceptance by the public depends on design and technology improvements to both end the fear of running out of battery power while on the road, and provide more internal space — both at costs most Americans can afford. Both problems seem to be on the way to resolution, based on the pronouncements from Tesla and Detroit. We can only hope!

But despite the optimism gene internal to most Americans, the great “big hill of hope” has recently become even bigger to climb. While alternative fuel advocates remain relatively quiet and often unable to speak with one effective voice, federal and state policies and regulations have been changed to limit the ability of alternative fuels to secure significant market penetration. Despite large subsidies to the oil industry, neither the administration nor Congress has been willing to seriously try to weaken the ability of Big Oil to restrict alternative fuel sales at local gas stations. Indeed, several attempts to enact open fuels legislation have failed to even get out of Congressional committees.

Although the country seems awash in oil, just this week, the president gave conditional approval to Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea off of Alaska, despite the company’s mismanagement of earlier attempts to do the same, and despite the objections of many environmental groups and Alaskan natives. Both industry and critics of the permits note that drilling will be risky, given very high waves, icy seas, strong winds, bitter cold weather and the need to protect the routes of migration and feeding areas for marine mammals. As The New York Times indicated this week, the permit is a “major victory for the petroleum industry and a devastating blow to environmentalists,” and for consumers, I would add. Estimates of the oil in the Chukchi Sea range all over the place. However, if oil companies are able to overcome high drilling costs and secure a significant flow of oil, even for a relatively short time, they will increase their ability to limit sales of alternative fuels among their franchises and through differential pricing, the sales of alternative fuels by independent retailers.

It doesn’t get any better. Just as opportunities to secure and store solar power — power that could be used to power homes, autos and utilities — seem almost ready for prime time, many of America’s utility companies — another great supporter of competition (excuse the cynicism) — have begun to seek legislative relief to impede solar’s growth. Their argument deserves discussion. If solar power grows, it could well be at the expense of improvements in the grid. But the use of their political power with state legislatures to seek ad-hoc remedies, different in each state, is not in the public interest. Legislative efforts to lower the price solar users secure from utilities when they put excess power on the grid may or may not be good policy or practice. Shouldn’t we know before such policies are enacted by states? Similarly, putting up regulatory impediments impeding the sale of solar units, including storage units, would likely really hurt what is now a risky start-up industry. The net result of poorly conceived state-by-state initiatives to protect the utility industry would be to limit the capacity of solar energy to substitute for coal in powering utilities and to reduce options to produce cleaner electric cars with almost zero GHG emissions. Similarly, restricting the storage of solar energy would end up slowing down the development of another alternative fuel — one based on solar-derived power.

Finally, the continuing efforts by several states to change Tesla’s business model have and will reduce competition for fuels and the use of electricity as a fuel. Why? Several state legislatures, under political pressure from auto dealers, have banned its direct-sales approach. If Tesla wants to sell its electric-powered cars in Texas, for example, it must sell through an auto dealer. Remember, some Texans recently wanted to secede from the union in order to free the state from “federal dictatorship” and, ostensibly, extend personal freedom and its corollary market competition! (I thought of signing the petition that was floating around to let Texas go.) Passing laws to protect one kind of business from another is un-American…almost like sending the Texas National Guard to monitor the training of U.S. soldiers to be sure they are not digging tunnels under Walmart and engaging in other nefarious activities contrary to the interest of the good citizens of Texas. Davy Crockett would be offended. The bottom line is that Texas and other states with similar regulations are limiting fuel choice by placing a Berlin Wall around their boundaries and not letting Tesla and its electric vehicles in. Ah. Freedom!

So, supporters have some big hills to climb and sometimes it may be a puzzlement to the climbers. But, as the singer Billy Ocean once vocalized, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Building a coalition among the willing supporters of alternative fuels should not be difficult. They share goals concerning the need for increased consumer choices and the value of open fuel markets. If they reach out to include, rather than define boundaries to exclude; if they acknowledge that absolute wisdom concerning strategies does not exist; if they are willing to work toward consensus and bring their respective constituencies along with them; and if they recognize that time is of the essence concerning achievement of key public interest and quality of American life objectives, following Robert Frost, they will travel the road less traveled, and will likely soon begin to see light at the end of their travails and travels.


Photo Credit: Getty Images

Matching ethics and policy: Free markets, subsidies and fuel

There is probably a reason that ethicists rarely sit at the public policy table with respect to transportation fuel. Let’s think about it for a few minutes in the context of a diverse group of econo-ethicists. Let’s match the ethics of presently monopolistic gasoline markets, the huge oil subsidies granted to oil companies and, yes (for environmental folks), the gift of HOV lanes and tax subsidies for those with the “right” cars, with:

  • John Rawls’ ethical guideline that we should respond to the least among us as we would want to be responded to ourselves,
  • Jeremy Bentham’s ground rule that we should seek the greatest good for the greatest number),
  • Karl Hayek’s admonition that the least government is, generally, the best government,
  • Michael Douglas’ statement in “Wall Street” that “greed is good.”

Currently, oil company policy and behavior with respect to gas stations they own, franchise or influence is very restrictive. Even when they allow alternative fuels to be sold in gas stations, companies play the role of Cinderella’s ugly stepmother. Alternative fuel pumps, often, are placed apart from the gas pumps, sometimes out of sight. If they were human, the alternative fuel pumps, legitimately, would have a discrimination case, need psychiatrists and would probably cry a lot because of loneliness. Lacking choices, consumers must pay an extra tariff for gasoline. Prices for gas reflecting little or no competition are arbitrarily high.

Congress supports the oil monopoly at the pump. It has failed to allow methanol as a transportation fuel and has not passed open fuels legislation.

Certainly, an ethical judgment of the current fuel market and those who establish its limited boundaries should be easy to make. You would get an “A” from both Rawls and Bentham as well as from Hayek if you said, “It is rough on the poor who pay upwards of 15-17% of their income for gasoline and it forces extra costs for all of us at the pump.” Finally, it illustrates Hayek’s warning that too much government restrictions limit freedom. Gosh, who ever thought I would agree with Hayek, even in a limited way? Perhaps, however, Mike Douglas wins this one. Greed has been good for the oil companies.

Douglas also wins big on tax subsidies to oil companies. Yet, despite diverse ethical principles, everyone scores well on the granting of tax subsidies to the oil industry. Both liberal and conservative groups, as well as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) agree that many of the tax subsidies are not needed to secure production and distribution. Why, then, does the industry benefit from such beneficence? History granted them favored status; politics and money give them influence at budget-making time.

I was in favor of (and probably deep down still tilt toward) HOV lanes. But, I do have some real doubts about tax subsidies, particularly subsidies not tied to income.

I am worried about the ethics of both. Most of the benefits of HOV lanes and tax subsidies to secure buyers of cars that use them go to relatively affluent income folks. Both are paid for by general taxpayers, including income-deprived tax payers.

Further, most low and moderate-income households face severe budget constraints if they try to buy new so called clean vehicles that are now allowed in the HOV lanes and secure tax benefits. No preference is granted to other alternative fuels like ethanol, and the federal government does not readily allow the relatively inexpensive conversion of existing cars to alternative fuels — methanol, ethanol. States generally do not permit the small number of converted cars in HOV lanes. Lastly, in terms of debits, HOV lanes do increase congestion, when they are not utilized to the fullest, increasing driving costs for every one of us who are not so lucky to own the “right” vehicles.

So HOV lanes and tax subsidies for favored cars do raise ethical questions. They don’t treat the least among us fairly, they are not good yet for the greatest number of us, and they reflect government behavior that reflects a bit of shooting from the hip before tough analysis concerning efficiency, and effectiveness. Let me see, Rawls, Bentham and Hayek would at least be sensitive to the involved ethical issues.

Alright, are you happy, indifferent or sad that ethicists are not at the policy table? Let me know.