Back in August I wrote about our “non-energy policy” and that our federal administrations since Nixon have vowed to reduce or eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, especially from hostile regions – and exactly the opposite has occurred. We are better positioned to control our energy destiny right now, for decades, more so than any time in my life.
Technology for tapping conventional fossil fuels has vastly outstripped and expanded the gap between inexpensive fossil fuel supply and alternative energy sources. Unfortunately or fortunately, this is reality. Two major energy sources being tapped of course include natural gas from shale using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal boring technology, and the second being oil extraction from the tar sands in Alberta. Predicting future energy prices is typically a waste of time, but I just don’t see the price of natural gas rising to $10 again for a long, long time. The NASDAQ might hit 5000 again before we see $10 gas. Future petroleum prices are certainly more volatile because most of it comes from overseas and subject to unrest, world economy, and the value of the dollar.
So let’s get on with some pie in the sky possibilities. The only reason it is pie in the sky? Dysfunctional Washington DC. What if they actually compromised to arrive at some decent solutions for the country for once? On the one side we have a third of the population that wants no more production of fossil fuels or nuclear power whatsoever. On the other side we have another third that wants no regulation or restraint on consumption whatsoever. So let’s make a deal, Monty.
Low energy costs resulting from abundant natural gas is a boon to the economy – first in its production. These freshly tapped sources of energy are a major job producer. Second, low prices spur the manufacturing sector, which I believe everyone agrees we need badly. The Wall Street Journal last week reported that industries that rely on natural gas as a feedstock are racing to build production facilities for manufacturing steel, fertilizers, glycol, plastics, and other chemicals. The upshot? One million manufacturing jobs in the next 15 years. Whoa!
While abundant and inexpensive for now, it isn’t infinite. The definition, or my definition anyway, of sustainability is to leave as much for future generations as possible. Getting sustainable policy out of Gomorrah – the place that borrows 30 or 40 cents for every dollar it spends is next to impossible. One quote worth sharing regarding the worthless 2 month payroll tax-cut extension, a guy quipped, “Why don’t we just cut out the middle man and ask for $40 a month from our kids?” Obviously, they don’t care about “sustainability” for future generations. But to get back on track – how about some reasonable restraints on consumption?
This is the conundrum of cheap energy. Vehicles today are huge and powerful. “This is what consumers want”, they say. Really? My personal preference for automobiles has gone the way of the dinosaur. That is, the smallish two door coupe – lightweight, zippy, with good mileage. Examples of discontinued models: Honda Prelude, Toyota Celica, Acura Integra/RSX, Nissan 240, Honda CRX. Honda and Nissan make the Accord coupe and Altima coupe but those are big honkers with two doors, a la the 1977 Chevy Monte Carlo like my brother had. The door alone weighed in at something near one of the Stonehenge rocks.
So how about some reasonable mileage standards? The EPA recently doubled it from 27 mpg today to 54.5 in a mere 13 years. This is crazy. How about a little reality? Why not something like 35 or even 40 mpg? Fifty-four mpg has no chance of becoming reality, whereas more modest goals do. Two ways to get there include diesel engines and petrol/electric hybrids. When in college I owned a 1984 Ford Escort diesel. That is correct, sir. It was a bit of a dog but it was reliable as the sun coming up, even in below-zero temperatures and it topped 45 mpg, easily. I could drive to Montana on a half tank it seemed. This was almost 30 years ago!
And why don’t automakers develop some sexy hybrids? I read an article a while back about drag racing freaks – and their power train for humongous power – electricity from a huge bank of 12 volt batteries. Stored electricity can deliver a huge amount of power. It can vaporize copper and ruin your day bad – arc flash, an explosion of gaseous copper. This is not exactly safe or recommended but the point is, gas/electric hybrids with relatively tiny engines can also produce huge bursts of power for those who like to burn a little rubber once in a while. Let’s face it, many people would rather decline a ride to the emergency room with a massive hemorrhaging head wound than be seen in a Toyota Prius.
There is a bogus argument that lightweight cars are not safe. They are safe unless you plow into a tanker somebody else is driving. If you want to be safe, drive a loaded cement truck or an 18 wheeler. How many collisions do these vehicles lose against the other guy? The people in the car, SUV, or van get walloped when tangling with these whompers and the truck drivers may walk away uninjured. That’s just the way it is. Small is only dangerous when tangling with something much larger.
And there is the Keystone pipeline football. To me, the choice is simple. We either build a pipeline and buy oil from our good neighbors to the north, a major blow to the oil cartel or we say no, Canada ships the oil across the planet to China and we continue to buy from the volatile Middle East. This is the reality. The choice is not (1) buy oil from the tar sands OR (2) power the car with an empty PBR beer can and banana peel in the flux capacitor. There are no other reasonable “or’s” at this point. Compromise this inexpensive, abundant, local energy source with higher fuel standards. The pipeline is an environmental hazard? Give me a break, the country is covered in a Byzantine labyrinth of pipelines.
Petrol and natural gas featured nearby.
The final bridge to energy independence: start converting the large transportation fleet to natural gas. Every single public transportation and school bus in the country should be converted to natural gas hybrid power trains. With dozens of start/stops every day, buses are a slam dunk for hybrid technology. Big rigs travel primarily on the interstate highway system so it would seem to me that getting a natural gas infrastructure in place to serve this network wouldn’t be that big of a challenge. It would be no different than our regulated natural gas and electricity markets are today.
Diesel fuel runs about 43,000 Btu/dollar today, compared to possibly 200,000 Btu/dollar for natural gas, depending on delivery charges. The commodity is hovering around only $3/million Btu. One fifth the cost, no refining. Help yourself to the emissions analysis.
Adding up the conversion to natural gas transportation and some modest, minimal sacrifices for fuel efficiency standards and we can probably cut our petroleum consumption by close to half – or at least 30%. Combine this with “domestic” petroleum (Canada included) production and suddenly, Vlady, Hugo, and the Sheiks will be crying. To this point, they are wallowing in our stupidity.
Speaking of let’s make a deal – Monty Hall, the host of “Let’s Make A Deal” plays a game where participants dressed as the jack of hearts randomly pick one of three doors, one of which is in front of a grand prize. Another has a pair of goats and the third has a bunch of rabbits behind them. You want the grand prize. Monty knows what is behind each door. You randomly pick a door. Monty opens one of the doors to reveal the goats. Question: should you switch doors or stay with the door you picked? Will it affect your odds of getting the grand prize? First one to email me with the right answer gets some used Christmas cards.
Quote of the Week
From Elaine Gallagher Adams of the Rocky Mountain Institute: “Operating an uncommissioned building is like driving your car down the road with the gas cap hanging open and the blinker on; you look like an idiot.”