Tags: energy | policy | ethanol | gas

Making Energy Policy That Works

Monday, 26 Sep 2011 09:33 AM

By Owen Smith

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Since 1978, every president of the United States has called for energy independence in the State of the Union address — and for good reason: 240 million of the 600 million barrels of oil used in the United States monthly are imported from the Persian Gulf and OPEC countries, 20 million from Russia and 50 million from Mexico.

Up until now, the goal of energy independence has proved unattainable. But dramatic technological developments and new energy finds have created a situation today where energy independence is possible. It is ultimately a question of political will.

The United States pulled together and built ships, tanks and ordinance to win World War II. We need such a push to win the energy war.

President Obama has focused almost exclusively on conversation. He has reiterated the call for energy independence most recently in announcing the corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ) goal for cars of an average of 54 MPG by 2025 — a difficult goal for car makers. It requires implementing technology not yet developed and assumes Americans will give up their SUVs and big cars.

Americans currently use over 400 million barrels of oil every month to power their cars and trucks — 70 percent of all oil used in the United States.

However, energy independence can be achieved before 2025 by allowing corporate America to commercialize recent energy finds and updated technology without delay.

Current production of oil from domestic sources can be expanded to utilize our proven reserves which exceed 19 billion barrels of oil.

That does not include the 2 trillion barrels of shale oil reserves that have recently been identified. (That’s five times Saudi Arabia reserves!)

American oil companies are standing ready to develop most of these sources as soon as they receive the necessary governmental permits and approval. The Obama administration has recently stalled oil shale development work by “re-evaluating” a 2008 Bush-era rule for commercial development of oil shale.

Environmentalists are concerned about the use of water in developing shale oil fields — recent technology has demonstrated that the water can be recovered and reused.

Currently identified U.S. oil shale reserves reflect a 25-year oil supply.

Environmentalists are trying to block efforts to build a 1,700 mile pipeline from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to Louisiana to use the refinery capacity in the Gulf area to refine the 2 trillion barrels of oil in the tar sands area of Alberta.

Half of the 200 million barrels of oil coming to the U.S. from Canada monthly are from the tar sands. This reflects another 25 year supply.

We can also extend our oil resources by maintain our commitment to ethanol. Nearly 10 percent of the fuel we use in our cars and trucks is corn-based ethanol.

Although controversial because production of ethanol diverts corn from other domestic uses including feed for animals, the production of ethanol can be significantly increased by putting more acreage into growing corn and other bio feed stocks.

Brazil relies on sugar-cane based ethanol, which is far more efficient. An acre of sugar produces 25 percent more ethanol than an acre of corn. Right now, sugar-based ethanol can not be economically imported into the United States because of an exclusionary duty structure. But if we remove those import duties, sugar would provide another alternative ethanol source.

Although cars and trucks are primarily powered by gasoline and diesel, there are alternatives.

Building so-called “flex fuel” vehicles, which can use either gasoline or ethanol, costs little more than a traditional gasoline powered vehicle — 85/15 ethanol gets about 75 percent of the fuel mileage of gasoline.

To be economic, 85/15 fuel must sell for at least 25 percent less than regular gasoline.

The key to encouraging more Americans to use flex fuel vehicles in a distribution system.

Currently there are 2,000 fuel stations in the United States selling 85/15 compared to over 115,000 stations selling gasoline. We need to make these fuels more accessible. By doing so, we will make them more attractive options.

With no modification, diesel engines can be B 100 — a blend of 90 percent diesel and 10 percent vegetable oil. Disneyland runs its trains on biodiesel made from its waste cooking oil. Previously it used soy-based biodiesel.

Natural gas is a great alternative for powering motor vehicles. The cost is about $2.25 gasoline gallon equivalent. That price will go down when natural gas for motor vehicles is more prevalent.

The big problem is the lack of filling stations. There are only 900 in the United States. Many municipalities and school districts are using natural gas rather than diesel or gasoline for buses.

Natural gas is being used for fleet trucks, highway equipment — any place where a the vehicles return each evening to a central point where a natural gas access point can be installed.

Make it available to the general public, so you can pull up your car at the gas station and fill it with natural gas, and it will go a long way to reducing our need for gasoline.

The trouble is, the Obama administration is making the conversation to natural gas vehicles more difficult.

The new mileage standards for trucks virtually precludes the conversion of these vehicles to natural gas. Let’s eliminate those standards and encourage trucking companies to use natural gas for large trucks.

It would be easier to develop a network of truck stops along the interstate that offer compressed natural gas (CNG). Although CNG-capable vehicles will use engines that are more expensive than those using diesel, an interstate 53-foot truck can use as much as $100,000 a year in fuel — owners will look hard for significant fuel savings.

Electric hybrid cars yield tremendous mileage — 50-plus MPG. These vehicles use battery power until the batteries run low then, a generator automatically kicks in to recharge the battery. That generator can be powered by gasoline, diesel, ethanol, biodiesel or natural gas.

Toyota, Chevrolet, and Ford have announced plug-in hybrids will be delivered soon. In some areas, employees are encouraged to use electric-powered vehicles with employers providing charging stations in employee parking lots.

Most plug-in hybrids will go 40 to 50 miles before the generator has to kick in. The auto industry is spending millions on battery technology research in order to capitalize on this technology.

Electricity in the United States is generated by a number of sources: Coal is the first, at 44.9 percent; natural gas is next at 23.4 percent; then nuclear power at 20.3 percent; and finally hydroelectric power at 6.9 percent.

This will change — the current prices of natural gas and coal (on a BTU basis) are very close. Many electric plants are built to use either fuel. The cost will dictate which will be used.

It is unlikely that we will see any large nuclear plants come on line in the coming decade; however, a substantial portion of the U.S. Navy has used small nuclear plants to power submarines and surface ships.

A California company has used this technology to develop a plant that can serve a community of 30,00 to 40,000 residents.

Residential and commercial heating reflect only a small portion of the total fuel oil market — much of it can be replaced. Geothermal heating provides a significant savings. Water is taken from the ground, cooled, and the heat developed while cooling is distributed to the building to be heated or cooled and the water is returned to the ground.

Where natural gas is unavailable because of distances to pipelines facilities, propane can be delivered by truck.

Owen T. Smith is chairman of the board for the Institute for World Politics, based in Washington D.C. He is also a professor emeritis of Long Island University, and former chief deputy county executive of the County of Nassau in New York.

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