If Mother Jones and the Wall Street Journal can agree on this

When Nobel Laureate George Olah wrote his Wall Street Journal op ed recently announcing a new process that can turn coal exhausts into methanol, it reverberated all the way across the political spectrum and into Mother Jones.

 “Can Methanol Save Us All?” says the headline of a story on MJ, written by political blogger Kevin Drum. Although loath to admit he had    been reading the pages of capitalism’s largest broadsheet (he blamed the government shutdown), Drum admitted that he was intrigued. “George Olah and Chris Cox suggest that instead of venting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it causes global warming, we should use it to create methanol,” he wrote.

Olah has been writing about a “methanol economy” for a long time, and he skips over a few issues in this op-ed.  One in particular is cost: it takes electricity to catalyze CO2 and hydrogen into methanol, and it’s not clear how cheap it is to manufacture methanol in places that don’t have abundant, cheap geothermal energy – in other words, most places that aren’t Iceland. There are also some practical issues related to energy density and corrosiveness in existing engines and pipelines. Still, it’s long been an intriguing idea, since in theory it would allow you to use renewable energy like wind or solar to power a facility that creates a liquid fuel that can be used for transportation. You still produce CO2 when you eventually burn that methanol in your car, of course, but the lifecycle production of CO2 would probably b less than it is with conventional fuels.

There are a few things we can cite here to set Drum’s mind at ease. First, methanol made from natural gas is already cost competitive. We don’t have to speculate. There is a sizable industry manufacturing methanol for industrial use from natural gas where it has sold for years at under $1.50 a gallon. That’s a $2.40-per-gallon mileage equivalent for gasoline (before further gains from methanol’s higher octane), making it at least 30 percent cheaper from what you’re now buying at the pump.

Of course Drum is referring here to Olah’s proposal to manufacture methanol by synthesizing hydrogen and carbon exhausts. This would be a more expensive process. But if it ever happened, the utilities would undoubtedly pay the processors to take the carbon dioxide off their hands, since it would allow them to go on operating their coal plants and using all that cheap black stuff coming out of Wyoming and West Virginia. It’s hard right now to factor up the costs but suffice to say, you would not be limited to geothermal from Iceland to make it happen.

As far as the corrosion issues are concerned, Drum can rest assured as well. It is true that methanol corrodes certain elastomers in current engines. They will have to be replaced with o-rings that can be bought at Office Depot for 50 cents. Any mechanic can perform the procedure for less than $200. Modifying current gasoline engines at the factory to burn methanol is also a surpassingly simple procedure – as opposed to altering an engine to burn liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas or hydrogen, which all require an entirely different assembly costing up to an additional $10,000.

The real rub mentioned by Drum, however, is the implication that if methanol can’t be shown to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, then there isn’t any sense in doing it. There’s a slight divergence of purpose here that isn’t always clear to people who can agree we ought to be looking for alternative fuels to replace gasoline.

For some people the issue is energy dependence and reducing the unconscionable $400 billion we spend every year on imports. As the United States Energy Security Council pointed out in a recent paper, even though we have reduced imports to only 36 percent of consumption, we are still paying the same amount for oil because OPEC functions as an oligopoly and can limit supplies. As the report concluded, “It’s not the black stuff that we import from the Persian Gulf, it’s the price.”

For other people, however, the amount of money we’re spending on foreign oil – and the international vulnerabilities it creates – is not the issue. The only thing that matters to them is how much carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere. Global warming is such an overriding concern that it supersedes everything else.

This was made clear in a recent article in Yale Environment 360 by John DeCicco, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and former senior fellow for automotive strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund, entitled “Why Pushing Alternative Fuels Makes for Bad Public Policy.”

The article argued against all forms of alternatives – ethanol, compressed natural gas, hydrogen and electric vehicles – on the grounds that none of them will do anything to reduce carbon emissions. “In the case of electric vehicles, an upstream focus means cutting CO2 emissions from power plants,” wrote DeCicco.

Without low-carbon power generation, EVs will have little lasting value. Similarly, for biofuels such as ethanol, any potential climate benefit is entirely upstream on land where feedstocks are grown. Biofuels have no benefit downstream, where used as motor fuels, because their tailpipe CO2 emissions differ only trivially from those of gasoline.

Instead, DeCicco argued that environmentally conscious individuals should concentrate on cleaning up power plants while support for alternative fuels should be limited to research and development.

By the time the power sector is clean enough and battery costs fall enough for EVs to cut carbon at a significant scale, self-driving cars and wireless charging will probably render today’s electric vehicle technologies obsolete. Accelerating power sector cleanup is far more important than plugging in the car fleet.

All this short-changes the clear advantages that can come from reducing our huge trade deficit and replacing oil with homegrown natural gas. The less money we spend on imports, the more we will have for making environmental improvements and investing in complex technology such as carbon capture that can reduce carbon emissions.

In addition, DeCicco may be being too pessimistic about alternative fuels’ potential for reducing carbon emissions. As The New York Times reported in a recent story about natural gas cars, “According to the Energy Department’s website, natural gas vehicles have smaller carbon footprints than gasoline or diesel automobiles, even when taking into account the natural gas production process, which releases carbon-rich methane into the atmosphere. Mercedes-Benz says its E200, which can run on either gasoline or natural gas, emits 20 percent less carbon on compressed natural gas than it does on gasoline.” Besides, if the source of emissions can be switched from a million tailpipes to one power plant, it’s a lot easier to apply new technology.

Mother Jones and The Wall Street Journal have much more in common than they may realize. One way or another, it would benefit everyone if we could reduce our dependency on foreign oil.


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?

Can the Marcellus give birth to CNG vehicles?

What if America had so much natural gas it didn’t know what to do with it?

Right now that’s the situation in the Marcellus Shale, the vast formation that underlies nearly all of Pennsylvania. There just isn’t enough demand for what’s available. And the same situation could be facing the entire United States in just a few years, according to speakers at the 2013 Natural Gas Utilization Conference held at the Omni William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh last week.

“Today there are 800 shut in wells in the Marcellus, waiting for an increase in price and improvements in infrastructure,” said Justin Carlson, manager of energy analytics at Bentek Energy of Colorado told the gathering. “By 2017, demand could dip below supply for the entire United States. We’re not doing enough to support growth. The market needs more users.”

Where could you find those new consumers? Virtually everyone agrees that there’s one market that is begging for greater natural gas use – the transportation sector.

Some companies are already looking for ways to do it. Last year Consol Energy Inc. and Praxair, Inc., a Connecticut-based manufacturer of industrial gases, was preparing to build a $2 billion plant to convert gas from the Marcellus into gasoline and diesel blends for use in cars and trucks. In the end, however, the economics didn’t quite work. “The project would have generated a positive rate of return but not the 12% that investors are looking for,” said Dante Bonaquist, chief scientist and corporation fellow at Praxair, who spoke at the conference. “We had to give it up.”

So absent a liquids option, most gas producers are opting for another technology – compressed natural gas. Leading the pack has been Chesapeake Energy, which set a goal to convert its entire fleet of vehicles to CNG by 2015. At the current pace it will hit the 80% mark in 2014. Last year Chesapeake’s Peake Fuel Solutions affiliate also partnered with GE to launch “CNG In A Box,” a package that compresses natural gas from a pipeline into CNG fueling stations so that small and large retailers can become vendors of natural gas. The package was introduced at the National Association of Convenience Stores 2012 annual convention.

“The 8-by-10-foot container is easy to ship and its modular design allows for plug-and-play,” said Bob Jarvis, spokesman for Chesapeake. “It makes pay-at-the-pump a familiar and secure experience.” GE already has a manufacturing plant up and running in Houston. On Sept. 17 it announced a memorandum of understanding with China’s Endurance Industries to deliver 260 CNGs In A Box to fuel China’s rapidly growing conversion to natural gas vehicles.

Last week, however, Chesapeake was forced to disband its seven-member Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force as part of an austerity-driven reorganization. But other companies may pick up the slack. “Chesapeake has been an important player in growing the natural gas vehicle market, but other companies and organizations have taken on that role now,” said Rich Kolodziej, president of advocacy group Natural Gas Vehicles for America.

Range Resources, another major player in the Marcellus, is also making an all-out effort to promote CNG vehicles. It recently closed a deal with GM to buy an entire fleet of trucks for its Pennsylvania operations. The company expects to save 40-50% of vehicle operating costs by switching from gasoline. With 180 trucks in the region, each carrying a 17-gallon tank, Range will save $3,000 each time its fleet refuels.

But is compressed natural gas the best way to go? The technology involves high-pressure tanks, both in storage and in your car or truck and involves a whole new infrastructure. Converting natural gas into methanol – a fairly simple process – would allow us to use the current infrastructure with only a few minor adjustments. Existing vehicles can be modified to use methanol for only a few hundred dollars and flex-fuel vehicles could use either methanol or traditional gasoline.

Methanol works better from the supply side as well. “The economics of methanol would have been more attractive,” said Bonaquist, of the Praxair-Consol Energy proposal that didn’t make it off the drawing boards. “The conversion and purification sections of the plant would have been less complex. It would have been particularly advantageous for smaller scale production.”

So what’s the problem? Well, unfortunately, putting methanol in your car hasn’t yet been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes it illegal. If the regulations could be changed, methanol would become a much easier route for moving the nation’s looming gas surpluses into the transportation sector. There could hardly be a more promising way of freeing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil.