REDSTATE ROUNDTABLE #11: High Oil Prices
In Which Blackhedd Takes On The American Motorist
By Dan McLaughlin Posted in Energy | Oil Prices | Redstate Roundtable — Comments (158) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
What follows started as a regular email thread but spiralled into something we felt should be posted as a roundtable on the site - a discussion of the future of gasoline-powered automobiles in America.
Hunter Baker: This interview is profoundly disturbing with regard to the oil situation. Can anyone help me feel better about it?
The rest of the roundtable follows...
Neil Stevens: There's a lot of self interest in that interview. He spends the early part of the talk going out of his way to explain how impossible oil is, how we're never going to drill for it, and how we can't transport enough of it.
But when it comes to transporting the fruits of *his* project, he waves it off with a "Transmission has got to be solved," which is an obviously true statement that does nothing to suggests he knows if or how it will be solved.
So ANWR is impossible to get through the red/green left, but his stuff? It'll get done. Somehow. He wants investors to believe it anyway.
Ben Domenech: I was about to email exactly the same thing. Pickens is being honest for the most part, but there's a definite lean here.
I still think nuclear is the way to go in a big way. It's the only way, really.
Dan McLaughlin: Ben, McCain is totally right on that, too. It helps, I think, that as a Navy guy and the son of a submarine guy he's comfortable with nuclear power.
Of course, nuclear cars are not in the near future. I hope.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): I don’t think I can make you feel better. I could say that Pickens has long been vocal about being convinced that global oil production has peaked and you could disagree with him. Among the senior executives of the largest global oil companies, only the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell is willing to say out loud that he agrees.
I don’t like the fact that Pickens doesn’t connect the dots when asked about what it will take to solve the power-transmission problem to the Western states. I think what he’s afraid to say (because there are people he can’t afford to piss off) is that various state and federal agencies are inhibiting the cession of rights-of-way to people who would like to build new transmission lines.
He doesn’t bother to point out that wind power is a neither-fish-nor-fowl proposition. Power engineers speak of "base loads" and "peak loads." Your basic nuclear and combined-cycle coal turbines are good examples of base-load power generation (always on, can’t change the generation rate easily, low-cost). Oil and natural-gas fired turbines are for peak-load generation (switch it on and off in a minute, high cost, always available on a stand-by basis).
Wind is not suited for either the base or the peak role, because you can never be 100% sure it will be there. That makes wind-power economics a total pain in the ass, regardless of what boosters like Pickens will tell you.
Do you remember the essay I posted on this ML (but not on RS) a few months back, in which I proposed we raise the federal gas tax from 18 cents to five or six dollars? My point was nothing more or less than to collapse domestic demand for crude oil. And the reason I came to that radical view was because of the wealth transfer to the Middle East, which I estimated at that time to be $3 trillion over ten years. Prices are higher now, and Pickens is talking about $6 trillion.
But you’ll notice that was the very first point he made. I remember using almost exactly the same terms he does: our purchases of imported crude are the biggest transfer of wealth in history.
Hunter Baker: I do recall your thoughts on that. I think it is a good cure except for the severity of the side effects.
I would very much like to see the issues of currency strength and the transfer of wealth via oil become centerpieces of the presidential campaign.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): Keep in mind that the whole discussion here centers on crude oil. (I’m considering only the objective of securing energy supplies, not the green movement’s objective of reducing total energy use).
Nuclear doesn’t solve that problem for you. The primary energy source for electricity generation in this country is coal, which isn’t an immediately constrained resource.
American industry just happens to be the most energy-efficient in the world, and by quite a significant margin, regardless of the conventional wisdom. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked.
What that means is that if you compute energy use per unit of GDP, we come out by far the best in the world. So then why does "everyone know" we’re the most profligate energy consumer in the world?
It’s because of motor transport. We (and the Canadians) have the highest *per-capita* use of energy in the world, by a very large margin, because we all drive around in cars all the time.
But apart from needing to get to and from work and the logistics industry, motor transport is a relatively small factor in American industrial production.
That insight is why I’m still in favor of the radical proposal of artificially making motor transport so expensive that we’ll back off it sharply.
That, and only that, will reduce our dependence on crude oil. The rest of the discussion is far less urgent.
To the obvious objection someone will raise: yes, you conceivably could run automobiles with electricity generated with nuclear power. That’s at least one major technological leap (better batteries) and 20 or 30 years (to clear the regulatory and financial hurdles to nuclear development) away. It doesn’t solve the problem at all.
Dan McLaughlin: And the reason the rest of us aren't with you on that proposal remains: it would be a drastic change in consumer lifestyle and would fall disproportionately on people who vote Republican. What we need, and continue to lack, is some commercially feasible way to replace oil in car engines.
Jeff Emanuel: ...and as those of us who don't live in Fishbowl NY pointed out before, your analysis and prognosis seems to treat that little fact that "we all drive around in cars all the time" as something that can be curbed or curtailed with little or no effect.
You're basically talking about dropping a nuclear bomb on suburbia. "We all drive around in cars all the time," in large part, because we who don't live on Cap Hill, or in The City Where Every Car is Yellow and Driven by Ahmed, have moved out of the cities where the business is conducted, and therefore must drive to and from those places of work every day.
Were you to implement your proposal, the effect would be catastrophic. Sure, the situation would eventually be resolved -- people would abandon the 'burbs and crowd back into the inner cities again, straining the capacity of the infrastructure, sanitation, etc (Yay! Every place could be like NYC but worse!) -- But that would take a significant amount of time. People can't uproot en masse *tomorrow* and procure living space within walking distance from work -- especially not without significant cost.
The rest of the country is significantly different from New York City, including in terms of available modes of transportation and suburban vs. urban living. I think some of those who live in NYC don't always grok that, while 18 million people do live there, 282 million do not, by and large because they don't want to live in, or like, New York City.
Hunter Baker: So, what's the story with the cars? Do we have a realistic way to start getting about two to three times the gas mileage?
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): Not unless you can figure out how to make a car that people will actually buy, that weighs half or a third of what they weigh now.
In this connection, don’t forget why SUVs and other very large, heavy vehicles are popular with *women,* who are now the most important decision-makers when it comes to buying cars.
A woman generally has the (not incorrect) perception that if she’s driving the largest, heaviest vehicle in an accident, her kids are the least likely to get killed.
Thomas Crown: What Jeff and Dan said. And it's also a bomb of unimaginable proportions on rural voters and citizens, who don't commute to work in a city, but have to drive to work (as in, not to get to work, but their work is disproportionately tied up in driving), or to get to the doctor, or to get to the pharmacy, or...
We have this sort of elegiac view of country life as a bunch of small towns where everyone knows everyone else, everyone gets everywhere on foot, except when they go to The Big City. That's so divorced from reality it makes you wonder if we all live on separate planets.
Dan McLaughlin: Well, that sounds like a pretty accurate description of country life, but from about 1910.
And: what Blackhedd said about SUVs is completely true.
Thomas Crown: It will kill them.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): I’m well aware of all those objections (and for what it’s worth, I’m looking at moving to Connecticut to be a state-and-city tax refugee. At that point, I’ll have to buy cars and hire my own private Ahmeds. I’m not foreseeing getting a driver’s license myself).
Let me just drop this on you, not as an argument, but just as a thought to turn over in the back of your mind:
Yes, the disruption of severely curtailing motor transport would be huge. But it would also be responsive to the tremendous flexibility of our economy (an unmatched advantage, by the way), and the still-formidable ingenuity of our entrepreneurs.
The problem of finding a gasoline alternative that would work with today’s cars and today’s distribution infrastructure is actually a far harder problem to solve. That’s partly true because it would deeply involve the government rather than private entrepreneurs.
Solving the problem of an economy with one-tenth the motor transport is far more likely to generate a resurgence of American economic leadership than solving the gasoline problem, at least with any of the approaches to the latter that I’ve heard.
Thomas Crown: The guy with four kids shares that perception, which is why his wife's car is an SUV.
Hunter Baker: Again, what the hell are we going to do about this?
Is there any oil benefit to what we have done in Iraq?
If the situation is truly grave, and I am beginning to believe it is, then I don't see how we can fail to do something very quickly. It can't be acceptable for us to just sit around filling the pockets of Vlad Putin.
Thomas Crown: Well, I see three options:
(1) Find other sources for hydrocarbons. Or spend a ruthlessly inefficient portion of GDP on nuclear, now. And kill Harry Reid.
(2) Make our use of hydrocarbons more efficient. (If we could go to external combustion engines instead of the heat-generators that incidentally produce motion we currently use, we'd be set. Of course, our cars would all catch fire.)
(3) Use bh's proposal and see how we all like the late nineteenth century.
Paul J Cella: This essay says there is already another options.
Well worth a read.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): "If the situation is truly grave, then we have to do something very quickly."
That’s the reason why I keep harping on this idea of sharply reducing motor transport now. Think of it as an opportunity to knock Hitler out at Munich or the Rhineland. Yeah, it’s ugly, nasty and costly, and you’ll catch bloody hell from everyone for it.
The other course of action (wait for Harry Reid stop blocking nuclear power, and pray for a usable electric car) sounds a lot better now. But is it?
Thomas Crown: Let me ask you this levelly: How do we feed all of the people who can't work after we implement your proposal? How do we provide utilities to them? How do we create the infrastructure in which they'll live when their mortgages and leases go belly up? How do we keep them busy so they don't turn into the animals we all are?
How much does all of this cost? And where do we get the resources -- not the money -- for it?
To the obvious objection someone will raise: yes, you conceivably could run automobiles with electricity generated with nuclear power. That's at least one major technological leap (better batteries) and 20 or 30 years (to clear the regulatory and financial hurdles to nuclear development) away. It doesn't solve the problem at all.
Yes, this was the objection I was going to raise. Forgive me for quoting Jay Leno, but this explanation sounds to me a lot like the folks who didn't want us to drill in ANWR ten years ago, because it wouldn't help for ten years at least.
Dan McLaughlin: Whatever else may be said about Leno, the man loves cars. And we are all most conservative about the things we know best.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): Ok, look. I can see that millions and millions of people will be damned pissed if you change anything at all about how they live their lives now.
But look at this: US GDP is not nearly as energy-intensive as many people think. That means if you curtail motor transport, you’ll disrupt people’s lives, *but you won’t throw them out of work.* That means this would not be a fatal disruption. No one would starve. Instead, they’ll surprise you with the ingenuity that they use to come up with alternative arrangements.
There are crazy ideas and there are stupid ideas. Most crazy ideas are also stupid. But some crazy ideas have an under-appreciated factor that makes them actually possible. Those are the ones that change the world.
But look at this: US GDP is not nearly as energy-intensive as many people think. That means if you curtail motor transport, you'll disrupt people's lives, *but you won't throw them out of work.*
Yeah, you will. Entire swaths of the country are *completely dependent* on the automobile. And no, they can't all up and move back toward where the jobs are, because even if they could afford it, and even if the mortgage situation were completely preventing such a notion, even if it wouldn't mean a massive drop in quality of life to go into some gang-ridden, polluted city, *there would be nowhere near enough places for them to live*.
Dan McLaughlin: More to the point, they would vote out of office anyone who gets a fraction of the way down that path, making moot the rest of the proposal.
Jeff Emanuel: Same reason we can't fix entitlements :-)
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): I don’t know who Jay Leno is. If you’re willing to wait for 30 years for battery-powered cars powered by nuclear plants, what are you going to do about the $10 trillion or more that we gift to the Arabs between now and then?
Let’s do the nuclear thing. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it’s a today-solution rather than a tomorrow-solution.
The only way to object to my argument is to posit that crude oil is not a today-problem. That actually is an open question, and given that, it’s probably the decision the country will make.
If you had stopped Hitler in 1936, it would be portrayed in all the history books as a military disaster (because a few dozen Frenchmen would have died), to say nothing of a criminal violation of Germany’s sovereignty. It wouldn’t be remembered as the smartest move in history because no one but Churchill saw what was coming.
Academic Elephant: It seems to me from this thread that it's not if we're going to go back to 1910, but when. In the short term, with the bh approach to limiting motor traffic, or the long term TC/JE plan, to keep burning the hydrocarbons while we got 'em.
I agree with Ben. Go nuclear, do it now, and do it big. On top of it, make finding an affordable, practical alternative to hydrocarbons for transportation the equivalent of the space race.
Then tell the Saudis and Hugo Chavez to go **** themselves.
Thomas Crown: Whoa, stop. I work at a law firm. 90% of what I do can technically be done, if inefficiently, by remote access. My driving to work is to make the work more efficient, not to get-it-done-period. 10% involves driving (or flying before and/or after driving) to clients, courthouses, depositions, site inspections, whatever. Some of those things, including trials, cannot happen as our system is structured, without driving.
I'm very, very lucky to work in such a job. How many other people can do that? Seriously: How many? How do you remotely figure that the guy who drives to the plant, or the office, or whatever, can do almost everything at or within walking distance of home? Do you actually have hard numbers?
Jeff Emanuel: Ditto TC. I'm lucky enough to be able to work remotely -- but not 100%. The rest requires travel.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): Moving where the jobs are:
It may just be me. But I talk to people all day long who work for companies large and small. And if you have a long-enough phone conversation with someone, sooner or later you'll hear a kid crying or a dog barking.
The American economy is *already* in a rapid transition to working at home.
Thomas Crown: Is it worth stabbing yourself through the heart to kill your enemy?
Thomas Crown: The only people like that with whom I deal are called "court reporters," and they have to do a Hell of a lot of driving when they're not working at home.
"I don't know who Jay Leno is."
Now that is the lede from this thread.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): Is it worth having a dangerous surgery to take out an angry tumor?
Thomas Crown: Is it worth leaving your femoral artery open to do so?
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): No, it’s not. We’re left disagreeing over how close the analogy is.
I’m going to drop this now. Obviously it will go nowhere. In the meantime, I’m going to step up my investments in technologies that allow people to work more effectively from home. And I’m also going to keep looking for businesses to fund that can actually be effective with a virtual work force.
Energy-intensity is a critical factor in economic production. We can solve the energy-intensity problem either by increasing supply or reducing demand. My bet is going to be on the latter.
Jeff Emanuel: Telecommuting is one transition and trend I'd love to see continue. Unfortunately, there will always be things that simply can't be done that way.
Further, I'd bet -- and I don't have numbers -- that it's the blue-collar jobs, the manufacturing, the sanitation, the construction, etc. jobs, that have the least flexibility of all vis-a-vis working on-site vs. working from home.
So some of your most integral workers, who are also some of your lowest wage-earners, are all going to be taking it in the backside paying thrice or more as much for gas that they have to use, while a white-collar guy like me takes my 6-figs and works from the home office.
That's upside-down at best.
Ben Domenech: I think we're glossing over the point where this conversation changes: the political realities of what Blackhedd proposes.
To be generous, they're just nil. There is no situation where an elected majority would support such a move. None.
If we were a monarchy, you could do this. But we're not. So crazy-bad or crazy-good, it's just not an option.
Thomas Crown: There you go being practical. Blackhedd probably won't one-up my metaphor now.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): Ok, let’s negotiate.
I’d be happy to see a one-third reduction in the number of miles driven in the US. (That’s a far cry from ninety percent.) Yes, the gasoline we save will get burned up in China and India, but remember my point that this won’t disadvantage us economically against them. (You will have to give up on the romance of a Sunday drive in the country, and coming-of-age-on-the-road movies.)
Let’s put a $5/gallon federal tax on gasoline. And anyone who is below a certain level of income (say, $75,000) files his gasoline receipts with his federal taxes and gets the tax rebated.
Now you’ll get the change of behavior I’m looking for, but without slaughtering the people who must drive long distances to get to low-paying jobs.
Thomas Crown: I appreciate the compromise attempt. Let me offer this:
If your marginal income is such that you have, say, an extra $200 per month, to take care of all exigencies and contingencies, and you drive normal hours to work, how do you front that gas tax for a whole year? Remember, the first year, you take it in the rear; theoretically, assuming an instant rebate from the IRS (HA!), you then have your operating margin, assuming nothing else changes, for a year. How do you get by that first year?
Jeff Emanuel: Thomas - Which is why it couldn't be done.
Neil - Pretty much a restatement of what I said above. The short-term alternative would be massive carpools with shared cost (basically paying the same to ride in a car with a crowd that you did to drive yourself, but with less overall flexibility or control), but that assumes there's a support structure around that folks could lean on: reliable friends, room in the cars, same time leaving home and leaving work, same general work area.
That wouldn't last -- especially since the best carpool vehicles would be those going-extinct Esuvees.
Neil Stevens: Yeah you beat me to it the first time, heh.
You see, Moreno Valley, California was not only the fastest growing city of its size in America in the 90s, but also some national television newsmagazine determined we had the longest average commute in America, too.
Paul Cella: -sigh-
I wish someone would read the link I sent. It basically argues that there is already an alternative, which has been tested, and could be rapidly implemented.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): I read that article months ago. It supports methanol as a motor fuel, requiring an already-known tweak to engine electronics.
Let’s do it. How do we start?
Ben Domenech: I read it, too - and favor it as a short term solution, with nuclear as the long.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): Again, my question is how do we get there? The only answer appears to be through a government mandate.
The auto industry doesn't give a s**** about free markets, and they'll do whatever the Feds tell them. What they care about is two things: they'll need an assurance that if the rules change, they won't change again for the ten or twenty years that constitute their planning horizon. And they want to be sure that the rules are the same for everyone. This is a tough but possible negotiation.
The oil industry will scream over this. But no one loves them these days, and a Democratic Administration and Congress won't have any trouble ****ing them. That's ok with me, I've already been lightening up my holdings of oil company stock. (With oil at $127, now you *know* I'm a contrarian.)
Methanol feedstocks are primarily coal and natural gas. That's fine, both are abundant in the US. But the green lobby (aka the Democratic Party) will fight over the replacement of one carbon fossil with another.
At the end of the day, that's your barrier to adoption. If I were a self-respecting Democrat, I'd approach the impending petroleum crisis in the following way: first, blame Republican malfeasance during the Bush Administration as a way to avoid moving the ball on methanol or anything else. Then, ditch the ethanol subsidies (the food shortages are perfect political cover for this move.) Next, make happy noises about nuclear, which can't possibly solve the motor-transport problem. Finally, wait for gasoline prices to hit the sky.
At that point, they can legislate a forced reduction in the usage of gasoline. Since their whole tacit objective is really to make America use less energy regardless of the cost or impact, the smart thing for them to do is to run out the clock while preventing any alternatives from getting traction.
Hunter Baker: I read Paul's link. Printed it out and took it to lunch. I actually feel much better. Very good article. Very good.
Thomas Crown: Blackhedd, I think you credit the Evil Party with an insufficient level of Stupid. Much as our Party has its share of Evil, they have their share of Stupid.
Incidentally, you're right: Only way to do this is through mandates, and not gentle ones, either.
Hunter Baker: Paul's link includes a rather imaginative mandate. You can just read the final third of the article.
Dan McLaughlin: I'm coming around to the methanol idea, but I need to read further on it.
Leon Wolf: Thomas or someone else can correct me on this, but under all available technology, the creation of any alcohol uses more energy than is created by the burning of that alcohol. I know for certain this is true w/r/t ethanol, which is what makes ethanol the very most ridiculous environmental measure ever conceived of.
Thomas Crown: Leon, as a general proposition, this is true. Caveat that I'm not a chemical engineer, so there may be a process available to overcome what I understand to be ordinary microchemistry.
Essentially, to make an alcohol of any kind, you rip off a lightly bonded hydrogen atom (this takes energy) from a base carbon, and shove an OH group on there (this takes even more energy). Carbon loves Hydrogen. It's only fond of oxygen, and in a multi-valence molecule, you have to overcome a tiny amount of resistance to add a clunky multivalence molecule on top; a portion of that energy is lost forever. When you burn the alcohol, essentially, you are applying energy to the -OH bond, hoping to liberate it and the energy used to bond it to the carbon. Thus, putting externality issues to the side,you have axiomatically released less energy that it took you to make the alcohol in the first place. Furthermore, the burning process does not always yield a perfect dissociation; some of the alcohol will end up as other compounds, some hydrocarbon, some not; axiomatically, unless you can overcome basic thermodynamics, you're going to get only a percentage of the -OH bond energy you put in.
Any of you whose family ever ran a shine still (as, yes, some of mine has) will know a bit about this, at a crude, imperfect level: Those things give off s***loads of heat (energy), take a lot of heat (energy) to run, and the final product doesn't burn nearly as efficiently as the fuel that went into making it.
Methanol has certain advantages that ethanol does not, not least being the least complex hydrocarbon in existence. This means that there's a little less energy required to shove the OH where you want it, and of course, less energy to detach the bond; but I'm not convinced that somehow, extra energy comes into play that overcomes the loss from ripping off an H to make it CH3- in the first place, let alone to overcome the residue and matter/energy loss issues.
Full caveat: That was one Hell of a simplification. Some of it is generally right, but as worded, isn't exactly right. I'm trying to convey the idea, not teach 1st semester P-Chem.
Incidentally, the real problem we have is that none of our fuel sources, as utilized, are good, as witness the fact that we use an internal combustion engine.
Also, when I say is lost forever with respect to energy, I'm not breaking Newton's laws, just referring to what we can and cannot reasonably ever recover
Dan McLaughlin: I should add that this is not on environmental grounds at all, but - as blackhedd and the guy who wrote the methanol article urged, on anti-windfalls-to-the-Saudis grounds. The question is whether the methanol car or flexible fuel vehicle discussed in the article Paul circulated is in fact a potentially economically and technologically workable solution. The article, at least, seemed to suggest that the only real obstacle was the lack of a critical mass of feuling stations. But again, I could be persuaded that the guy was full of it.
Paul Cella: I have a good relationship with some of the New Atlantis editors (where that methanol essay appeared). I asked them the same question (in more diplomatic terms). The consensus was that he may be a bit optimistic about the possibility, but overall he's on solid ground.
Leon Wolf: Well, it also doesn't survive any long-term fuel problems, either, because you're going to have to do something to generate the methanol/ethanol, and guess what that "something" is right now? If you guessed "fossil fuels," you're correct! So, in order to create enough ethanol to roughly equate to a gallon of gasoline, we have to burn more than a gallon of gasoline.
There's probably a more insane policy that we're pursuing right now, but I can't think of one.
Paul Cella: The article suggests otherwise:
Depending upon the source material, there are a number of different ways to make methanol, but they all come down to the same few chemical reactions. Converting coal or natural gas to methanol can be done with tried and true nineteenth-century chemical engineering. The same goes for biomass—which means that any plant material, without exception, from weeds and fallen leaves to swamp cattails and the vast floating growths that clog innumerable rivers in Latin America and Africa, can be used as feedstock for the process. And trash, too, can be converted to methanol: it doesn't matter whether the feedstocks are packaging materials, old rags, used candy wrappers, plastic forks, or Styrofoam coffee cups; the stuff is all just compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, with a few impurities thrown in here and there, and all of it can be converted to methanol.
Leon Wolf: I know virtually nothing about methanol, I'm talking about ethanol, and the chemical reaction which creates it requires the addition of heat/energy, which has to come from somewhere.
I'm even skeptical of the process here described to create methanol. I know that, for instance, if you take a lot of trash and put it in a landfill, the anaerobic environment generates a load of methane just from natural decomposition, so I guess that part sounds believable, but I'd imagine there has to be some sort of leeching process to separate methanol that would be fuel-grade and wouldn't destroy car engines.
Paul Cella: Leon, in the article, this guy says the process is already pretty well perfected, produces more efficient fuel than gasoline, and is ready for use.
Jeff Emanuel: So can I put it in my car now? Or do I have to get a different one?
Paul Cella: You'd have to get a new one or cough up the dough for a costly refitting. But the big hurdle right now is that there is no fueling-station infrastructure.
Dan McLaughlin: Also, as the article explains, there's methanol cars and there's hybrids - ideally, if we create a hybrid market we could get enough critical mass of feuling stations to make methanol-only cars practicable.
The guy also thinks ethanol is a boondoggle.
Francis Cianfrocca (blackhedd): Seems to me that there are two completely distinct issues mixed up in all of this.
First is carbon emissions, which the environmental crowd wants to sharply reduce (presumably the CO2 emitted by China and India is more equal than ours). Unfortunately, these people are part of the political future so they have a say in the outcome. To them, it’s more acceptable to burn carbon from plant matter (rather than mined fossils) because somehow it’s part of the existing balance of atmospheric CO2 and oxygen. Ultimately they will be against any mode of alcohol production that depends on fossils like natural gas or petroleum.
Of course, that interacts with the second issue, which is basic thermodynamics. The introduction of fossil carbon into the fuel-production matrix in any way, shape or form is a leverage point. And I would argue strongly that it’s the leverage point that has made the modern world possible. When you burn fossil carbon, you’re using energy today that was captured from the sun in the distant past. *Axiomatically that multiplies the amount of energy released today.* That’s a critical point, because it means that any “sustainable” mode of energy release (meaning one that doesn’t rely on already-latent or fossil energy content) can not possibly power the modern world with the cost-efficiency we’ve become used to.
That means that if we go to full sustainability, the cost of energy expressed as a production factor will necessarily and immediately increase toward pre-industrial levels.
And guess what? That has already happened with ethanol. The precise chain of effects is complex, and follows a pathway through the international monetary system, but thermodynamically it’s as plain as day. Making sustainable energy inevitably reduces overall efficiency, because it sacrifices the leverage of using energy that was fixed in place in a prior age. Today this is showing up in price inflation for food and industrial commodities.
The ONLY ways to solve this problem without using fossil carbon are: to use fossil-nuclear (the nuclear-binding energy that fission releases was fixed in large atoms inside supernovas in distant time, so the thermodynamic leverage is similar to that of fossil carbon); or to *radically* improve the efficiency of all industrial processes, including transportation. I think both approaches should be pursued.
The fact that it takes more energy to produce methanol or ethanol than is contained in the fuel is actually a red herring. If you add in the energy fixed in petroleum by the natural processes which took place long ago, you’ll find exactly the same thing. Again, using fossil energy is far more efficient by its very nature, although of course we can’t do so indefinitely. That makes the path of radical efficiency the one that the world will need to take in future centuries.
And finally, in economic terms, it doesn’t really matter that it takes more energy to produce alcohol-based motor fuel, because the energy itself isn’t the point of the exercise. The point is to get from point A to to point B in your automobile. The economic value of being able to do that is the determinant of how much you’d be willing to pay for the processes that create the fuel.