|Edwin Black||January 25th 2013|
Those worried about the perilous state of our energy dependence, addiction, and insufficiency are confronted by a vast array of plans, treatises, predictions, and solution road maps to guide future thinking written by an army of experts both battle-tested and self-proclaimed. However, few authors possess the deeply-drilled depth of knowledge and understanding of both energy history and petropolitics as do Gal Luft and Anne Korin. Both Luft and Korin are two well-known warriors at the tip of the spear in the crusade for sensible energy policy. Their latest book, Petropoly--The Collapse of America's Energy Paradigm, tackles the world's energy predicament with a fresh viewpoint crafted for the present year and, indeed, for the present era of roiling Mideast upheaval and a paralyzed Washington establishmentâ€”all with rising seas, warming temperatures, and plummeting economies in the background.
Petropoly paints the big picture for the reader--not with broad strokes, but with laser-beam efficiency. The authors firmly understand the inner workings of the recent history of transportation, from the early nineteenth-century dependence on horses to the emergence of the tinker toy automobile. They confront the avaricious enterprises that make up the petroleum industry. These multiple wisdoms come together in a Braque-built expertise, making their sage insights so valuable in Petropoly. The book is brimming with high-octane brilliance and coherent thought.
With the benefit of hindsight, insight, and foresight, Luft and Korin trace our post-World War II oil policy from the contemporaneous context of Ike Eisenhower to the contemporaneous context of Jimmy Carter and on to the mispractices and malpractices of both Barack Obama and his "Drill, Baby, Brill" Republican opposition. With their keen understanding of commodities and cartels, from salt to cocoa to OPEC, the authors have successfully distilled America's own willingness to endow OPEC and the cars it supplies with a symbiotic global dynasty that they call 'Petropoly.' Their new nymic stands for more than a monopoly. It is, in fact, more than a cartel. Petropoly represents the collision and collusion of societyâ€™s moment-to-moment fuel addiction with the moment-to-moment supply and demand manipulation of the nationally endowed and enabled OPEC grand masters.Luft and Korin offer many solutions to our self-imposed energy hypnosis from CNG (compressed natural gas) to methanol. Unfortunately, like most addictions, breaking free is a matter of willpower and priority. Both of those two elements have been painfully absent from America's chaotic, self-defeating energy fragility. For example, on Page 87, Luft and Korin declare "an additional challenge for CNG vehicles is the need for a dedicated refueling infrastructure for gaseous fuel.â€ Unhappily, in the very next sentence, the authors lay out the sad truth that, as of spring of 2012, there were only 987 CNG refueling stations nationwide, and only about half were open to the public. Hence, the country might be able to double our reach for CNG refueling in an era of crisis plastered over if we were just clever enough to allow universal access to existing CNG refueling stations.
It is my own previously espoused view that if the U.S. Post Office converted its fleet of 213,800 trucks and cars to CNG vehicles--which would take approximately 7 to 10 yearsâ€”given the realities of scrappage and conversion delaysâ€”every governmental agency with a fleet could share those 31,000 facilities. In doing so, one road-weary agency could quickly multiply the viability of CNG vehicles from sea to shining seaâ€”saving billions of dollars in the process. Of course, enabling mass CNG refueling is a problem, because while millions of CNG vehicles roam the highways and byways of the world, from the most backward bush to the most cosmopolitan realms, the same car makers in America who manufacture these vehicles for foreigners, refuse to make the vehicles for the American public. Consequently, we constantly face the spectacle such as Honda pretending it is devoted to its wonderful CNG car (the Honda GX), but refusing to manufacture or market these vehicles in any measurable numbers beyond a tokenistic few thousand cars per year in an overall market of at least 14 million vehicles annually.
As well as briefly focusing on CNG, the authors shine their main spotlight on their main solution, a democracy of liquid fuels. For example, they write of liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which the authors assert is ten times more affordable than CNG. But, their longtime favorite stops the show at the front door of methanol.
The authors concede that methanol "enjoys no vocal lobby in Washington or taxpayer-funded price support mechanisms." Yet, they insist it is "the only high-performance liquid fuel that is capable of presenting, in the foreseeable future, a serious threat to gasoline's hegemony in the fuel market." While methanol yields only about half the innate energy of gasoline, the disparity is compensated for by much higher engine efficiency due to methanolâ€™s lower heat output. "Less energy is wasted,â€ Luft and Korin argue, â€œstretching a dollar of fuel purchase further." In this vein, remember that methanol has a much higher octane rating. In other words, more bang for the buck, more bangs in the barrel.
Ironically, as the authors show, about two-thirds of worldwide methanol production is percolated from natural gas. It seems perfect for America. Natural gas is currently so massively abundant in the United States that producers are scrambling to find export markets to redirect the excess. But methanol can also be derived from a plethora of other feedstocks such as coal, so abundant the United States is choking on its vast underexploited deposits. The authors also point to methanol from biomass, which is virtually omnipresent in our world. For sure, converting biomass into liquid fuels requires lots of tricky chemistry and conversion technology. Everything to do with methanol requires many steps and lots of technology. But if you have ever seen how white granulated sugar is refined--as many as 17 steps of purification, refinement, and chemical restructuring, then you know such processes are simply a matter of willing the way.
As Petropoly points out, the Shanxi region of China is nothing less than "the Mecca of methanol blending." The authors explain that "throughout the province, methanol is omnipresent. Light-duty vehicles fuel regularly with M-15," which is a blend of 15 percent methanol and 85 percent gasoline. Most public transit and commercial vehicles, including taxis and buses, run on M-85 or M-100. Methanol has proliferated to 25 of China's 31 teeming provinces, spawning more than 200 methanol factories and "in Shanxi province alone, more than 1,200 service stations offer methanol blends." Within two years, the province's methanol outlets are expected to double. Methanol capacity in China has exploded from 2 billion gallons in 2003 to nearly 15 billion gallons today, equal to America's ethanol industry, Petropoly tells us. Within a few years, hundreds of thousands of Chinese vehicles, large and small, will be running on methanol. What does China know that Washington does not know? Maybe if Washington knew the answer to that question, we wouldn't be borrowing so much money from China. The pencil point of Petropoly's exposition is the continuous cry for sanity amongst America's energy policy makers and shakers. Luftâ€™s and Korinâ€™s cry for help supplicates Washington to stop "leading the United States to economic suicide" and to stop "aiding and abetting OPEC."
For the past 150 years, the world has been torn and clawed by its reckless driving down the rock-strewn road to energy security. The fact that Petropoly needed to be written and the fact that Petropoly needs to be read offers the most common sense condemnation for Americaâ€™s refusal to adopt sensible and sane solutions to our energy needs. Therefore, Luft and Korin can be expected to write another such book in another forthcoming presidential term. Until our society is completely devastated by our addiction, there will not be the will to quit or the will for rational change. Petropolyâ€™s sequel is undoubtedly in the works.
Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust, and four works of energy history and analysis. These include Banking on Baghdad, Internal Combustion, the Plan, and British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement. He lectures nationally on oil and energy.