All I Want for Christmas is a Sane Energy Policy
To use a cliche from a few decades back, I think my "consciousness has been raised" by reading Robert Zubrin's new book, Energy Victory. It seems that everywhere I turn, I encounter someone who says something that reminds me of the book, and that makes me want to give them a copy. So I'm starting a last-minute Christmas list of people I want to share the book with.
For example, yesterday I followed a link over at Jerry Pournelle's site to the text of a speech by Newt Gingrich entitled Sleepwalking into a Nightmare. In the speech, Gingrich lays out one of the major propositions of Zubrin's book -- a sound and sane energy policy, one that gets us off Saudi oil once and for all. But he blows it almost immediately, to wit:
And let's be honest: What's the primary source of money for al Qaeda? It's you, re-circulated through Saudi Arabia. Because we have no national energy strategy, when clearly if you really cared about liberating the United States from the Middle East and if you really cared about the survival of Israel, one of your highest goals would be to move to a hydrogen economy and to eliminate petroleum as a primary source of energy.
Emphasis added. One thing Zubrin makes very clear is that the "hydrogen economy" is simply not a workable idea. Hydrogen burns clean and would be a terrific alternative to gasoline if it were available on its own. Unfortunately, on this planet it comes packed with oxygen in the form of water. In order to free up hydrogen atoms to burn as fuel, we have to expend energy to release them from their bond with the oxygen atoms. In fact, the amount of energy we have to expend is, at best, only equal to the amount of energy we'll get burning the hydrogen. There's no net gain.
So somehow we have to generate the energy required to free up all that hydrogen. And that needs to be a clean and non-foreign source of energy. So naturally the question becomes --once we've figured out what that is, why not just use it instead of hydrogen? Cut out the middle man, as it were.
The hydrogen economy is, if anything -- according to Zubrin -- a diversion backed by the oil companies. It allows President Bush and other politicians to take the position that they are in favor of getting us off oil while backing a proposal that is very unlikely to do so. Meanwhile, we just keep chugging the oil.
So for Christmas, I want to give Newt Gingrich a copy of Energy Victory. In fact, I'd send him two copies if I thought he could get his friend President Bush to read one of them.
But I don't just want to give the book to my friends on the right. Oh, no. Others need to read it, too.
Last night I'm sort of half-watching Boston Legal. I don't really follow that show much any more (believing that it jumped the shark somewhere around the halfway point of the first season), but the lawyer who lives here at Casa Speculist is still a pretty big fan, so it was on. Anyhow, John Larroquette is making this closing argument about how hard it is to know what to do about saving the environment. As a throwaway, he mentions that ethanol is an attractive approach, except for the fact that filling the tank of a Hummer one time requires using the same amount of grain that would feed a human being for a year.
I'm not sure that I'm quoting that correctly, and -- even if I am -- considering the source, let's just say that there is some chance that it might be a bit exaggerated. Be that as it may, the problem with that argument is not the merits of the case, it's the assumption that energy is a zero-sum agricultural game. Zubrin points out that much of the developing world is starving not because we're burning all our grain in the form of ethanol, but because we refuse to import their agricultural products. If we want to help raise the developing world out of poverty, a huge step forward is to create a worldwide market for their agricultural produce -- for example, the ethanol market that Zubrin argues can free us from dependence on foreign oil.
So let me offer the book Energy Victory to Boston Legal executive producer David E. Kelley. Merry Christmas! (Or happy what-have-you.) Dave, this business about helping out third-world farmers is right up your alley. And I have a sneaking suspicion that making our energy economy dependent on their efforts would do more to help them than we have been able to do so far through clever manipulation of, say, the coffee or brazil nut markets. Plus, you could write one of those heavy-handed closing arguments for Alan Shore (James Spader) to deliver, and for once Denny Crane (William Shatner) would be standing by cheering!
I also want to give a copy to whoever it was in the Blog Talk Radio chat room while we were interviewing Robert Zubrin who claimed that ethanol requires more energy to manufacture than it produces. This is another oil-company talking point. Zubrin clearly demonstrates in his book that while this is a valid argument against the 'hydrogen economy," it is utter nonsense when applied to ethanol. Brazil has demonstrated that you can get a net energy gain from ethanol for decades, now. (And I'll throw in another gift copy of the book for the first oil-company stooge who leaves a comment arguing that Brazil is different because they use sugar cane rather than corn.)
Finally, I want to give a copy to Dr. John Marburger, a science adviser to President Bush who is quoted in the book as well as to a member of Marburger's senior staff whose meeting with Zubrin is described in some detail. Zubrin meets with Marburger and outlines how one simple federal requirement -- that all cars manufactured in the US and imported into the US be flex-fuel-capable -- could help us to:
Achieve energy independence
Break the grip of OPEC on global energy markets
Help to de-fund terrorism
Drastically decrease carbon emissions
Improve economic conditions for some of the poorest of the poor worldwide
Zubrin argues that putting enough flex-fuel cars on the road can create a market for ethanol (not to mention methanol) both of which can free us from dependence on foreign oil. He explains elsewhere in the book that making a car that can run on either gasoline, ethanol, or methanol is not the huge retooling task that most people would expect it to be. You need a recalibrated fuel injection system -- one that responds to whatever mix of gas and alcohol you happen to put into your tank -- and fuel lines that won't break down when exposed to alcohol. That's it. This is well-established technology. Compared to building a hybrid or making a car that you can safely run on hydrogen, this is child's play.
Put enough of these flex fuel cars on the road, Zubrin argues, and gas station owners will have an economic incentive to put in ethanol or methanol pumps. More people buying flex-fuel cars and greater demand for alcohol fuels eventually puts price pressure on OPEC. This economic solution would put the consumers in the driver's seat and would create a competitive environment that would drive down the price of gasoline, ethanol, and methanol. It's a win-win-win.
"We don't believe in mandates."
His staffer, when meeting with Zubrin some time later, explained that the costs involved in making the switch to flex-fuel cars would simply be too great for us to bear. Not the cost of actually changing the vehicles -- which apparently he concedes would be minimal -- but the cost of certifying all these new flex-fuel cars. That would cost us a whopping $150 million dollars or, as Zubrin points out, about what the US spends on foreign oil every five hours.
You know, I'm a pretty free-market guy, and Zubrin's solution passes my 80-20 test: 20% of the initiative (or less) needs to come from the government, while 80% (or more) should be market-driven. I haven't seen anything else proposed that comes close to meeting that ratio. The "hydrogen economy" certainly won't.
You would think that a government that "doesn't believe in mandates" would leap at the chance to do something effective that requires so little government involvement. Unless, of course, "we don't believe in mandates" really means "we don't believe in doing anything that will annoy the oil companies," which of course, is another way of saying, "we don't intend to do anything about this at all."
So come to think of it, I don't think I'll waste two copies of the book on Marburger or his staff member. I think there must be some other folks out there who would benefit more from reading it. Please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments area as to who I should give the book to.
And don't forget to buy your own copy: