“Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity — not a threat.” — Steve Jobs
Are we running out of oil? Are fuel alternatives overrated? Can fossil fuels become irrelevant? The recent surge in so-called “energy” discussions is astounding. From top news outlets like National Geographic’s “Great Energy Challenge” and The New York Times’ “Wheels” to niche sites like The Energy Collective and Oil Price, proponents have consciously delegated a space to discuss solutions to some of the most important transportation, electricity generation and environmental issues of our time.
An article by a contributing editor to The Atlantic, Charles C. Mann, is among those believing in the economic significance of fossil fuels. He claims that "Americans will be less likely to spend trillions on fancy no-oil cars if cheap petroleum is in abundant supply," which is debatable for two reasons:
First, new oil is harder to find, takes longer to develop and requires a lot more capital. We are not running out of oil. Although supply is indisputably important, the amount of oil that can be extracted at a reasonable cost should be more of a concern. Oil must be in the range of $50 per barrel to sustain economic growth, far below the current level of over $100 per barrel. Even when the price of oil in the U.S. (the WTI) dips, the price of gasoline does not decrease because it is determined by the international market (Brent Price).
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Second, modern technologies to save or displace oil cost far less than oil. Alternatives become highly attractive when considering the entire cost of relying predominantly on oil for transportation, from individual wallets to economic and political stability. Here are some facts:
• In 2012, the U.S. spent $291 billion on imported oil.
• Oil accounts for over half of the nation’s trade deficit.
• The bulk of our national security budget is spent on protecting oil routes in oil-rich regions.
And the list goes on.
Presently, the number of oil rigs operating in the U.S. is at its highest level in almost 30 years. We should reduce our dependence on foreign oil by utilizing our substantial petroleum reserves. Yet, our domestic oil supplies alone cannot satisfy our present or future transportation needs. Another error in Mann’s article, along with many others that attempt to tackle our so-called “energy” problem, is lumping electricity and transportation fuels together under one synonymous and interchangeable category — energy. When discussing the topic of oil consumption, it is imperative to distinguish electricity from transportation because approximately 71% of our oil supply fuels transportation.
Lastly, Mann is not wrong to be concerned of costly car conversions and the potential need for new car manufacturing to accommodate abundant replacement fuels. But why not consider fuels that can be easily transported with existing infrastructure, directly used in flex-fuel vehicles with minor engine modifications and blended with gasoline? Most cars that have been produced over the last five years are already capable of being flex-fuel vehicles that can run on ethanol and gasoline.
However, to enable the cars to run on multiple fuels, slight modifications to fuel line seals and other parts and computer reprogramming in the vehicle are required. Ethanol and gasoline flex-fuel capable cars could be converted to support a blend of up to 60% methanol by merely replacing fuel system seals and o-rings. Support for higher methanol blends can be achieved by modifying an automobile’s spark tables. Late model year non-flexible fuel cars could be converted to flex-fuel by reprogramming their on-board computers to recognize alcohol fuels. Altogether, there are an estimated 50 million cars and trucks that could be converted to run on ethanol, methanol and gasoline blends. In addition, it is not costly to convert vehicles. Most of the associated costs are for the labor that is required to replace the seals with alcohol-compatible products.
Because the role of government in capitalism is to enable markets, our goal should be simply to facilitate an open market that encourages fuel competition. New businesses will compete, prices will fall and innovations will drive efficiency and quality. How do we know such a transformation is possible? Because it has happened time and again as our free market system has evolved and thrived over hundreds of years. By disregarding the power of competition we are running away from a great opportunity.
By. Zana Nesheiwat