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.

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