The Oil Leak’s Silver Lining?

It is hard to see anything positive about the offshore drilling debacle that has countless barrels of oil washing ashore in Louisiana, and perhaps soon in other Gulf states. The environmental and economic damage will come at an incalculably high price to a region– and, for that matter, a country– that can ill-afford either.

Those costs would only increase, possibly exponentially, in the event regulators responded to public concerns that further oil leaks might emanate from offshore platforms by cutting back on production in the Gulf of Mexico. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was at pains over the weekend to point out that 30% of the nation’s energy supplies come from those wells, and there would be grave harm to the U.S. economy if there were any appreciable suspension of such flows.

Still, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility that the repercussions of the present crisis will be made much more far-reaching if it precipitates the sort of panic that took hold after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in 1979 or the oil leak off Santa Barbara a decade earlier.

At the risk of looking for a silver lining to this oily black cloud, there is a chance that some significant good could yet come from the popular revulsion at this nightmare.  That would be the case if the nation were finally impelled to do the one practical, near-term and affordable thing that would, over time, dramatically reduce our dependence on oil: Wean the U.S. automotive fleet from its current, almost complete reliance on petroleum-derived gasoline.

Today, there are on our highways roughly six million cars known as Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs).  These automobiles can burn either gas or ethanol or some combination of the two.  FFVs can be engineered to run on methanol and butanol, as well – alcohol-based fuels that, like ethanol, can be manufactured in quantity from abundant domestic sources. The marginal additional cost of building such fuel choice into new cars is trivial, currently less than $100 per vehicle.

Importantly, several years ago, Ford, GM and Chrysler pledged to then-President George W. Bush that, by 2012, fully half of their new offerings would be FFVs.  Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress which would ensure that the American manufacturers’ foreign competitors must also meet this “Open Fuel Standard” and that eighty percent of all new cars sold in America by 2015 must be FFVs.

If any further reinforcement were needed to secure the swift adoption of the Open Fuel Standard, it can be found in two other events that recently underscored why it is not simply desirable, but an absolute necessity, that we diversify the fuel supply for the sector of our economy most dependent on oil:

1. The official Saudi press agency reported at the end of March that the kingdom had taken into custody 113 al Qaeda terrorists.  They were said to have made up two distinct suicide bomber cells that were “in the initial stages of preparing an attack on oil and security facilities in the Eastern Province,” the heart of Saudi Arabia’s petroleum industry.  This is not the first such attempted attack and will almost certainly not be the last.

2. In late April, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps undertook three days of exercises in the Strait of Hormuz.  According to the Jamestown Foundation, “the exercises featured dozens of speedboats attacking target ships with rockets and newly built torpedoes.”  These sorts of drills are clearly intended to lend credence to Tehran’s threats to cut off the flow of oil through and out of the Persian Gulf.

In the event either of these menaces eventuates, a serious disruption in the flow of oil to the United States and other Western consumers would be unavoidable. Especially if combined with pressure to cut back on the exploitation of America’s off-shore energy resources, the effect could be sharply increased prices for gas and possibly sustained shortages of supply.

Under those circumstances, would we hesitate to make the fullest possible use of available technologies, particularly highly cost-effective ones, to tap our nation’s vast potential for alcohol-based fuels and, thereby, to enable “fuel choice” to the consumer?  Not bloody likely.

Such a step would have the added benefit of breaking the back of the monopoly currently enjoyed by the oil cartel, OPEC, many of whose members wish us ill.  Continuing to transfer our national wealth to such nations is insanely reckless. By adopting the Open Fuel Standard here, moreover, it is likely that cars that meet it will be sold internationally, as well.  As a result, as many as 120 countries around the world would be able to manufacture their own fuels, further eviscerating OPEC’s stranglehold on energy supplies.

Perhaps even in such extremity a few holdouts would still cavil against the government imposing a “mandate” in the form of an Open Fuel Standard – despite it being one that would create competition where none exists today. As Robert Zubrin, author of the brilliant blueprint called Energy Victory, has noted, the mandate for digital televisions was adopted without such histrionics.  It is vastly more important that we provide for our energy security than for the quality of our television signals.  And, as the BP blowout makes absolutely clear, it is past time that we do so.

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  • Joe DeVet

    As I started to read this article, I thought he would be proposing a real solution–nuclear power. Instead, he resurrects a boondoggle which I thought the public had begun to understand as a blind alley in the search for energy independence and “renewable” energy.

    He doesn’t mention it, but he’s referring to alcohol made from corn. What he also doesn’t mention is that this “source” of energy cannot be sustained without big subsidies from Uncle Sam.

    The reason–all that agricultural production, all that processing to get a fraction of the tonnage of corn into a liquid fuel form (ethanol) takes about as much energy as the energy of the ethanol available to run the cars. In other words, plant an acre of corn, harvest it and process it into ethanol and you have enough ethanol to–plant and process the next year’s acre of corn!

    Government mandate indeed. There is one in place already, requiring a certain amount of the gasoline to include ethanol. We’ve already experienced one of the unintended negative consequences of this. The poor people of Mexico and elsewhere in the world have experienced a doubling of their corn prices. The poor always suffer disproportionately for our misguided interferences in the economic system.

    As Catholics, who claim a “preferential option for the poor”, we should oppose the kind of ideas fostered in this article.

  • I agree with Joe that alternative renewable fuel sources that will supplant (pun intended) food sources is unethical.

    I have also come across a genuine alternative source that may not have the moral issues related to ethanol. Some of you may have also heard of it and it hasn’t reached mainstream media in a deluge yet. I suspect the power companies are trying to suffocate it.

    So far this technology is used to power cars and you can get the details here…