Why aren’t we using methanol?

The more you look at the contemporary scene with gasoline and imported oil, the more you have to wonder why we’re not switching some of our fuel needs to methanol.

Look at what’s happening: Oil has become so plentiful that we’re reverting to the old situation of the 1950s, when the big concern among oil people was that some new discovery was going to be made in some far corner of the world and there would be a new “glut” that would cause the bottom to fall out of the market. It was during this era that we placed a 20 percent cap on our oil imports. The concern was that there was so much cheap oil in the world that the American oil industry would be decimated.

All that changed in 1970 when American production finally leveled off — right about the time geoscientist M. King Hubbert had predicted “Hubbert’s Peak” would occur. The import ban proved easy to circumvent, and before we knew, it we were importing 36 percent of our oil, most of it from the Persian Gulf. OPEC, first convened in Baghdad by Saddam Hussein in 1960, suddenly became more than a debating society and realized it had real market leverage. Instead of begging the oil companies for higher royalties, the OPEC nations suddenly realized they could raise their price and even withhold supplies. The era of the Energy Crisis had begun.

Congress did all the wrong things in responding. It extended President Nixon’s price controls on one commodity, oil, creating a domestic shortage — too much consumption, not enough production. We made up for this by importing more oil, in which the price controls didn’t apply. While President Carter mandated a “moral equivalent of war” and wore cardigan sweaters, the price controls had the exact opposite effect: Our imports swelled from 36 percent to 50 percent in 1980, and we were sitting ducks when the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War suddenly cut short supplies. The result was the Second Gas Shortage.

President Reagan put an end to all this by striking down the oil-price controls his first week in office. Drillers went wild in Texas, and the Saudis flooded the market in trying to maintain market share. Soon prices had collapsed back to 1972 levels, and the “oil shortage” was pretty much forgotten.

Meanwhile, similar developments were taking place in natural gas. This commodity had been subject to federal price controls since the 1930s. Basically, it was an attempt by the Northern consuming states to rob Texas and Louisiana of their natural resources. In 1977 we actually experienced a “natural gas shortage” that caused factories and schools all over the North to close down in mid-winter, while Texas and Louisiana were burning natural gas for electricity — then considered horribly wasteful — because the price controls did not apply intrastate. This “crisis” was solved more slowly as natural-gas price controls were not phased out until 1988. Once again, supplies gushed forth. (We did learn a lesson. Nobody has talked about price controls on oil and natural gas since.)

Even with the market freely operating, however, the natural supplies of both oil and natural gas seemed to be diminishing, so that by 2005 we were running short of gas and back to importing more than half our oil. Then George Mitchell’s fracking revolution began. Suddenly, America was the world’s leading producer and oil and gas were once again in abundance.

Yet as far as freeing ourselves from further dependence on foreign oil, the results have been disappointing. Even though we are again producing 10 million barrels of oil a day, we are still dependent on imports for 30 percent of our oil, about one-quarter of this from the Persian Gulf. Low prices have stimulated consumption. People are going back to buying bigger cars and our gasoline use is hitting new records. Sales of electric cars and other alternative vehicles have nearly collapsed. Whatever impulse there is toward conservation is highly dependent on price.

Anything that requires a new infrastructure — electric cars, hydrogen vehicles, compressed natural gas and propane — will have trouble getting beyond a niche market. It’s simply too troublesome and expensive to get people to convert. But corn ethanol and methanol both slot easily into our current system of gas pumps and can compete.

The trouble with corn ethanol is that we are rapidly exhausting the potential supplies. We now use 40 percent of the corn crop to replace 3 percent of our gasoline. Cellulosic ethanol may expand supplies, but it is still basically experimental.

That leaves one fuel that could potentially replace vast amounts of our imported oil — methanol made from natural gas. We have enough natural gas supplies from fracking to make this a game-changer.

The great irony is that China sees this opportunity and is already seizing it. The Chinese are busy constructing two huge methanol conversion plants in Texas and Louisiana in order to take advantage of the abundant supplies coming out of the region. The Chinese have a million methanol cars on the road and will be carrying these supplies back to China to power their growing transport sector.

Yet the EPA continues to refuse to allow methanol to be used in car engines, mainly because of the reputation earned as a poisonous “wood alcohol” during Prohibition.

As Anne Korin of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security once said: “I think methanol fares poorly in Washington precisely because it doesn’t need any subsidies or government assistance in making it economical. For that reason you have no big constituency behind it and no member of Congress crusading on its behalf.” The entire farm belt is working to support ethanol, but there is no “methanol state” or corresponding congressman working in its favor. For that reason it languishes.

For almost 50 years the Indianapolis 500 cars have run on methanol. Yet it is still forbidden in our commercial transport sector. Isn’t it time that somebody considered the general good and started crusading on behalf of methanol?

(Photo by Vivid Racing, posted to Flickr)

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