At Witz' End - Gas Prices: Alternatives and Oil Supply
Most agree that conservation is the critically important first step in altering that equation. Next comes development of alternatives, some that can propel our vehicles, others that cannot but can displace oil and natural gas now being used for energy production.
Should we pursue:
Clean coal -- Yes! Coal gets a bad rap, but the U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of coal. We have vast supplies that can be mined more safely and burned surprisingly cleanly.
Nuclear – Yes! France gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear. We've been afraid to build new nuclear plants for decades; but once we do, it's safe, cheap, clean and carbon free.
Solar – Yes! Solar panels are expensive, and huge arrays provide only modest power. But once they're in place, it's cheap, clean and carbon free.
Wind – Yes! Big investment but cheap, clean and carbon free once installed. Biggest challenge is finding suitable isolated areas, since no one wants to see wind farms.
Hydro – Yes! There must be more opportunities for clean, inexpensive, carbon-free water-driven electric power that could and should be exploited.
Diesel – Of course! It's a petroleum fuel very costly to emissions-cleanse compared to gasoline, but it offers higher fuel efficiency. Biodiesel is better but tricky to use and hard to get.
Alcohol – Yes! Nationwide use of E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline blend) can displace 10% of gas with no modifications to vehicles or distribution infrastructure. E85 could some day displace another 75% but requires E85-capable vehicles, dedicated tanks and pumps and rail or truck distribution. Its production should not compete with human or animal food, but the long-range potential of low-cost cellulosic ethanol from non-recyclable materials, waste and garbage that would otherwise go into landfills is huge!
CNG – Sure! Compressed natural gas is cleaner and cheaper than gasoline with the convenience of home refueling. The downsides: bulky tanks, less range and few public fueling stations.
Hydrogen – Why not? Tough to transport and store, low energy content and huge infrastructure investment but essentially emissions free whether burned in cylinders or consumed in fuel cells.
Battery EVs – Yes! Still expensive and range-limited, but their appeal increases as gas prices rise and batteries improve. No tailpipe emissions but total well to wheel emissions depend on the electricity source.
Hybrid EVs – Yes! But their high cost is still subsidized by manufacturers. Single-mode hybrids (Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, Nissan) save gas in mostly in town. Two-mode hybrids (GM, Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes) save at highway speeds as well. Plug-in hybrids with range extenders (Chevy Volt) promise huge savings at still-higher prices. Expensive high-energy, vehicle-size lithium-ion batteries will be the key.
Fuel Cells – Yes! Still a long shot due to cost and lack of hydrogen infrastructure. Only tailpipe emission is water vapor, which is clean and pure (but the major greenhouse gas).
Anything I've forgotten probably should be pursued as well, not through mandates or taxpayer subsidies but in competition with everything else on the free market. Gasoline has been by far the most affordable energy carrier for most of our lifetimes, but the higher oil and gas prices climb, the more competitive alternatives become.
The third hugely important step is increasing supply...our own, not someone else's. There is more available oil within U.S. territories – many miles offshore, in shale formations in Colorado and other states and in the unfortunately misnamed Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – than in the entire Middle East. Yet we are prevented from exploiting it due to outdated environmental concerns.
Is there any other country that refuses to exploit its own resources, preferring instead to increase its dependency on oil from other countries, many of which are dangerously hostile? Obstructionist excuses ring increasingly lame: "If we start drilling in ANWR today, it will be 10 years before that oil would be available." Really? Then we'd better get started!
If Bill Clinton had not vetoed ANWR drilling in 1995, we would already have been enjoying huge output from there for several years...and paying much less for it. ANWR is said to be capable of yielding enough oil to replace all we import from Saudi Arabia for 30-40 years.
The truth is that some new U.S. oil could be available in a year, and much more in two or three, depending on the sources. And simply deciding to go after our own supplies, then doing it, will deflate prices by cooling speculation and putting unfriendly sources on notice that we won't depend on them much longer.
Modern methods are environmentally safe. There has been no leakage from Gulf oil rigs following Katrina and other major hurricanes. Way (out of sight) off-shore rigs are creature-friendly man-made reefs. Land-based horizontal drilling leaves eco-environments untouched.
ANWR is mostly barren wasteland at the far northeast corner of Alaska, so comparisons to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon are absurd. The potential exploration area would use just 200,000 of its 19 million acres, equivalent to a postage stamp on a football field. And the very few species that live there will love it, as they do the existing Alaska pipeline.
If the U.S. has more available oil than all of the Middle East, why are we importing any from there? America could be the world's largest oil producer. Instead, we produce just 1.9 billion barrels a year while consuming 7.6 billion, and the estimated 9-16 billion barrels in ANWR, 86 billion on the Outer Continental Shelf and 800 billion in shale remain off limits.
Of course we should set aside pristine parks and wilderness areas. But not all of the east coast, all of the west coast, all of the Rocky Mountains and all of ANWR.
The anti-oil mantra, "We can't drill our way out of this," may well be true. But who can argue with a straight face that substantially increasing America's oil production would not help lower global oil and U.S. gas prices...while vastly improving our national security? The 20-plus percent of Americans who say they don't want to increase America's oil supply by (cleanly and responsibly) going after our own enormous sources must be rejoicing in today's high prices.
While we're at it, let's build more refineries. Insufficient U.S. refining capacity is another element of our own domestic high-demand, short-supply, high-gas-price situation. Yet, due to high cost and political opposition, we have not built a new one for more than three decades.
What should we do to drag down oil and gas prices, which are inflating the prices of everything, destroying household and business budgets, killing jobs and weakening economies around the world? Everything we possibly can as quickly as we possibly can!
Let's stop fighting over which measures we favor and which will take longer and get busy working on them all. You pick your favorites, I'll pick mine. But don't rule out any just yet.
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