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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.

What do Grover Norquist and Edmund Burke have to do with Natural Gas?

I don’t like the idea of advance pledges by candidates concerning how they would vote, if they were elected by us. I believe it is contrary to representative democratic government and denies the fact that economic, security, social and environmental conditions change, often rapidly, and must be responded to with studied intelligence and common sense, not constant polling or focus groups.

I guess I am, at least, part Burkian.  Although it departs from present reality, as the great philosopher and British MP, Edmund Burke indicated, our elected leaders , should use their “…unbiased opinion…mature judgment…enlightened conscience…(our) representative(s) owe …not (their) industry only, but (their) judgment; and (they) betray, instead of serving (us), if they sacrifice ( judgment) to (our often fleeting ) opinion(s).” Voters can, at least in theory if not always in practice, dismiss their representatives at the next election. I am not sure Burke won again after he made his plea for more thinking and less pandering.

I am suffering emotionally (not too significantly) by being tempted by  a Kaplan analogue to Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge, required of  candidates for office.  While the tax pledge, I believe, is responsible for at least some of the dysfunction in Washington, there is a certain romantic, almost utopian appeal to it with respect to frustrated advocates for more and better fuel choices at the pump than just gasoline. As Emerson wisely indicated, perhaps, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The new Kaplan analogue to the Norquist pledge would acknowledge that the natural gas train has left the station. Indeed, it has! One has only to look at the number of wells/rigs now in place compared to just a few short years ago and the relatively rapid escalation in gas production.

The natural gas sector has become, and likely will remain, an economic and political powerhouse. In this context, advocates of a “renewable transportation fuel only” approach, risk, implicitly, supporting a short and intermediate term future dependent on oil and gasoline. As a result, their success would likely result in increased environmental degradation, more greenhouse gas (GHG), higher costs for consumers, increased security problems and restricted economic growth. Clearly, the enemy of a short term good would become a distant perfect.

The Kaplan pledge would commit candidates to help secure reasonable and effective federal and state regulations to protect and enhance the environment and significantly reduce GHG production during production, distribution and sales of natural gas-from wellhead to automobile.

The pledge would commit candidates, once elected, to help foster a collaborative public, nonprofit and private sector effort to wean the country off dirty oil and gasoline. It would require them to develop and support initiatives that open up the now almost closed transportation fuel market to safe, environmentally sound, cheaper alternative transition fuels. Finally, it would commit candidates, should they take office, to support the development of renewable fuels and vehicles that would reflect competitive costs and mileage capacity that match the budget and occupation as well as life-style needs of low, moderate and middle income Americans.

I feel sinful in departing from the philosophy of Edmund Burke. I need to contemplate my fall from philosophical grace. I apologize!  I hope I am treated with grace and redemption. My excuse in proposing a Congressional pledge was only a temporary errant fantasy. It “ain’t” going to happen. It is a flight from reality.

But, was it all bad? Perhaps, the Kaplan pledge points the way to an alternative that is not antithetical to Edmund Burke. What if, instead of trying the impossible with elected officials, many  of whom try to fit their views to the, often of the moment, views of their constituents, advocates of a free fuel market and alternative transitional transportation fuels worked to form  a coalition of nonpartisan or bipartisan groups: business, labor, environment, government, academic and community . Each group would join because they are consistent in heart and mind with the Kaplan fuel freedom pledge. Each would accept the intent explicit in the pledge; that is the nation’s need for a comprehensive fuels strategy that would bridge the gap between renewable and natural gas advocates, between environmentalists and the natural gas industry, between liberals and conservatives.

Free market business and conservative adherents would put muscle behind their ideology in seeking a more open fuel market. Liberals would put meaning behind their desire to aid the needy who suffer from the high cost of gasoline and limited job opportunities because budget constraints limit driving. Environmentalists would match their concern for the environment with support for natural gas, ethanol and methanol as transitional fuels — fuels that would reduce GHG and other gasoline generated pollutants. The nation would be better able to secure the stimulus now required to improve economic growth because of the reduced dependency on foreign imports. Every one of us would benefit from success in assuring research and development of renewable fuels. The coalition would inform and increase Congressional understanding of the need for an integrated coherent national fuel strategy. The payoff to elected leaders:  The Coalition would promise to help voters comprehend the nation’s need for alternative fuels and a comprehensive fuel freedom strategy. It would meet with measured success. Sign me up! The best of all possible worlds! Oh Happy Day!  I can dream can’t I?

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.