3 Myths About Breaking U.S. Oil Habit
by William O'Keefe
May 23, 2011
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm is touring the country to promote a national clean energy policy. Working with the Pew Clean Energy Project, she’s pushing Congress to impose a renewable energy mandate, quadruple taxpayer spending on “green” energy research, and increase electric vehicle sales.
Granholm along with others lobbying for renewables regularly cites three points in their attempts to justify a tax dollar funded scramble for any substitutes for oil as a transportation fuel: climate change, energy independence, and scarcity. And each of those areas exhibits serious logical holes.
Those interested in grabbing political power and attempting to leverage it to control economic decisions have wielded the threat of climate change for more than two decades. Like this Saturday’s apocalypse, though, the worst forecasts from their computer modeling have failed to transpire. The Wall Street Journal reported last month the U.N. — back in 2005 — warned we’d see 50 million climate refugees by 2010:
Six years later, this flood of refugees is nowhere to be found, global average temperatures are about where they were when the prediction was made—and the U.N. has done a vanishing act of its own, wiping the inconvenient map from its servers.
In the wake of these kinds of erroneous conjectures as well as the global recession, the climate change juggernaut is now on life support as nations attempt to get their fiscal houses in order. By the time the global economy recovers, the climate change enterprise may be limited to simply continuing the entitlement to those who make a living from conference and research welfare.
The notion of energy “independence” has never made sense. If applied to any other commodity or product, analysts would instantly discredit the idea that America should completely disengage from world markets.
A combination of geological and technological realities means nations in the Middle East — some of which are U.S. adversaries and support terrorists — control much of the global oil supply. This also means that Western countries, to a certain extent, are vulnerable to the whims of those governments such as the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo.
Even though the concept of total self-sufficiency is unrealistic (and arguably even undesirable), our leaders can still take reasonable steps to insulate our country from these geopolitical events.
In the case of the 1970s oil embargo, Congress established the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — a complex of salt domes with capacity to store enough crude to replace U.S. oil imports for 75 days (727 million barrels). What lawmakers didn’t do was adopt a long-term, rational energy policy that would develop our own resources and invest in a suite of energy technologies. Even so, we have made substantial improvements in efficiency — reducing by 50% the amount of energy and carbon needed to produce a unit of gross domestic product.
There’s a certain conceit to the argument that we’ll soon run out off oil, as it implies that we have an accurate idea of the amount of existing and recoverable natural resources.
At the time of the 1973 embargo, U.S. proven oil reserves totaled about 31 billion barrels. Since then we have produced over 100 billion, but proven reserves have only been reduced to 28 billion. Such are the benefits of technology and new discoveries. The U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates that potential oil reserves, which include unconventional oil, are about 150 billion barrels. We are not about to run out, although economics and technology limits might constrain how much makes sense to produce.
Given oil’s abundance, versatility, and energy density, there’s little prospect that the gasoline engine will become a dinosaur anytime soon. The preferred alternatives to gasoline are electric, natural gas, and biofuel powered vehicles. The problem with electrics is range and cost. The National Academy of Sciences report on battery technology concluded that the cost per KWH given the state of technology was about 4 times greater than needed for batteries to be cost competitive. It saw no breakthroughs on the horizon. Biofuels are similarly constrained by technology and cost. Ethanol remains in the market through subsidies and economical cellulosic technology needed for more biofuel is nowhere in sight. Natural gas is a niche transportation fuel for large, centrally fueled buses and trucks.
Pursuing a broad range of transportation technologies is in our long term interests. But for the next few decades, gasoline and diesel will remain the dominant transportation fuels and improvements in engine technologies reinforce that reality. One example which will be in the U.S. sometime in the near future is a version of the BMW 320 which reportedly gets 57 miles per gallon.