Knight-Ridder: Oil Independence is possible, but does America want it bad enough?
- This story appeared different days in different papers of the
national Knight-Ridder chain....it never made it into the print
edition of our hometown San Jose Mercury News.
Oil independence is possible, but does America want it bad enough?
Posted on Tue, Feb. 21, 2006
BY KEVIN G. HALL
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON - President Bush's State of the Union pledge to end
America's oil "addiction" and his tour of emerging energy technology
centers this week have touched off a national debate on how to
achieve energy independence.
"The answer is pretty simple. We will never get to energy
independence while we are using oil as the major fuel," said Severin
Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute
There are ways to break America's oil addiction, experts say, but it
won't be easy. Cures include stricter conservation, higher
fuel-economy standards, alternative fuels made from common crops and
next-generation batteries for hybrid cars that could get more than 100 mpg.
These and other options are promising, but all would require
sacrifice and trade-offs. And, importantly, none are yet
cost-competitive with oil. That's the biggest challenge to escaping
America's oil-based economy. Although growing global demand has
strained supplies, oil remains widely available and relatively cheap,
even at today's high prices.
In November 1973, President Richard Nixon announced "Project
Independence" to end U.S. reliance on foreign oil by 1980. He asked
William Hogan to help lead the crusade. Hogan spent the ensuing
energy crisis years as deputy director of the forerunner to today's
Department of Energy. But Americans are now more dependent than ever.
Here's what Hogan thinks of Bush's pledge to end America's oil addiction:
"My honest reaction was I wish he hadn't said it."
Hogan believes energy independence is illusory. Oil remains the
world's most cost-efficient fuel and is likely to remain so
indefinitely. The real goal, he believes, should be reducing
Americans' vulnerability to price and supply shocks.
The problem is "there's still all this oil in the Middle East" said
Hogan, now a Harvard University professor. Because the Middle East is
home to most of the world's proven oil reserves, it's expected to
remain the low-cost oil producer for decades. And oil is likely to be
the fuel of choice as long as it remains cheaper than alternatives, Hogan said.
If America went cold turkey, it would mean switching to higher-priced
or heavily subsidized alternative fuels, which Americans and the
government have resisted since Ronald Reagan won the presidential
election in 1980.
And there's still the question of how quickly the nation could
replace the 136 million gasoline-powered cars that cruised America's
highways in 2004, the latest year Federal Highway Administration data
During his State of the Union address, Bush called for reducing
three-fourths of the oil that the United States purchases from the
Middle East by 2025. A day later, his energy secretary clarified the
goal - it's actually to reduce oil imports from anywhere by the
equivalent of 75 percent of projected Middle East imports.
The Energy Department projects that Middle East oil imports will
total 6 million barrels per day in 2025, so Bush's goal means
displacing 4.5 million barrels a day by then.
That's more like a bartender taking away the glass but leaving the
bottle. The United States would still be consuming nearly 23 million
barrels per day of oil, and about 13 million barrels a day would come
Bottom line: Under Bush's approach, America would remain addicted to
foreign oil and still vulnerable to price shocks in a global market.
The surest way to break oil addiction is to make gasoline much more
expensive. High gasoline taxes have helped Europe discourage
consumption and promote more fuel-efficient cars.
In that vein, Americans for Energy Independence proposes a gradually
rising import energy tax. The revenue it would generate "would be
used for incentives to spur the move to plug-in hybrids (gas-electric
cars) and a national bio-fuels campaign," said Chris Wolfe, the
Logical, perhaps, but likely?
"That's a non-starter, not just with Republicans but Democrats," said
Borenstein of the University of California. He doubts that
politicians have the stomach to impose a so-called "sin tax" on oil.
California may soon test that. A signature drive is under way there
for a referendum on taxing oil to create incentives for alternatives.
Another option is to sharply increase mileage standards for new cars.
During the 1970s, Congress imposed standards on carmakers, and fuel
efficiency for passenger cars jumped from an average 12.9 mpg in 1974
to 27.5 mpg in 1985. The requirements for cars haven't been raised
since, and they're lower for trucks, including SUVs.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in 2004 that raising
minimum mileage requirements for cars to 31.3 mpg could reduce
gasoline consumption by 10 percent. But, the CBO warned, that would
increase the average car price by $900.
The CBO said a 10 percent cut in gasoline consumption could be
achieved at lower cost by raising the gas tax. The last time the gas
tax was raised was in 1993, when President Clinton persuaded the
Democratic-led Congress to increase it by 4.3 cents per gallon. But
Republicans blasted the tax hike and Democrats lost control of
Congress in the 1994 elections.
The Rocky Mountain Institute, a Snowmass, Colo.-based energy research
organization, offers a blueprint on how to attain oil independence by
2025. Its 2004 book "Winning the Oil Endgame" said U.S. oil
consumption could be halved by 2025 with alternative fuels and
The institute recommends making cars from lightweight materials such
as carbon-fiber composites. It also suggests "feebates," which
combine steep fees on vehicles with poor gas mileage and government
rebates for fuel-efficient vehicles. Owners of gas-guzzling SUVs
would pay fees, while drivers of gas-electric hybrids or vehicles
running on ethanol would get tax rebates.
"To achieve this does not require a revolution, but merely
consolidating and accelerating trends already in place," wrote Nathan
Glasgow and co-authors.
Bush's proposals spotlight two alternatives to gasoline: new battery
technologies for electric cars and mass production of enzymes that
convert plant fiber into ethanol fuel.
Consumers are snapping up hybrid cars by Toyota, Ford and Honda.
Those cars have two motors, one powered by gasoline, the other
electric. The gasoline motor recharges the battery. The cars achieve
roughly double the mileage of a gasoline-only engine.
Some 200,000 hybrids were sold last year, about 1.2 percent of the 17
million cars sold in the United States.
The next big thing is expected to be plug-in hybrids whose batteries
are recharged by the gasoline motor, but also can be plugged into any
120V electrical outlet for charging. Once perfected, these stronger
batteries could achieve 100 mpg or more.
"You're substituting electricity for gasoline - that's the big
benefit," said Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.Org, a nonprofit in
Palo Alto, Calif.
CalCars believes that if all U.S. vehicles in 2025 were hybrids, and
if half were plug-ins - two big ifs - U.S. oil consumption could fall
by 8 million barrels a day, or 30 percent. Hybrids that run on
alternative fuels could cut oil consumption even more.
Bush also backs cellulose-to-ethanol technologies. Corn-based ethanol
production is expected to reach 6 billion gallons next year;
researchers estimate a maximum production potential of 15 billion
gallons per year. That's about 12 percent of the projected 120.4
billion gallons of gasoline that the Energy Department estimates
Americans will consume annually in 2025. Hardly independence.
But mass production of biologically engineered enzymes that can break
down virtually any plant fiber for conversion to ethanol offers hope.
Add these to the mix and suddenly ethanol's production potential
leaps to 100 billion, approaching levels needed for independence.
"I think it's very doable. But it depends on whether policymakers
provide the incentive to get it done," said Georg Anderl, director of
operations for Genencor International, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based
No one has built a costly large-scale commercial bio-refinery. Anderl
believes the industry is waiting for Washington to help.
"What we need to have is a system-level integration of all the
technology that's needed ... to make ethanol from crop waste. ...
What's going to be required is government funding to really provide
the impetus and bring that together," he said. "No one company is
going to do that alone."
Even then, huge infrastructure hurdles would remain. Currently, fewer
than 700 filling stations nationwide sell ethanol. More than 167,000
Infrastructure hobbles another hope: hydrogen fuel cells. A few years
ago, hydrogen was viewed as the heir apparent to gasoline.
Hydrogen-powered cars rely on electric motors powered by fuel cells
that store pressurized hydrogen.
Experts believe it could take up to 20 years before hydrogen fuel
_cf_s are affordable and reliable enough to market. Then there's the
challenge of building a national distribution system, because liquid
hydrogen must be stored at temperatures under minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
With so many obstacles to energy independence, Jens Mueller Belau,
Shell's global technology manager, thinks gasoline will still
dominate 20, 30, even 50 years from now.
"However, the diversity of fuels will be growing in the next few
years," he said.
Shell's U.S. fuels marketing manager, Dan Little, says all the
emerging alternatives will help reduce America's dependence.
"If you put them all together, they're all going to play an important
role in overall fuel solutions," he said.
For more on President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative go to:
For a PDF version of "Winning the Oil Endgame" go to:
For more information on Plug-In hybrids, go to:
For more on cellulose-to-ethanol technology, go to:
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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