Whale Watching: Everything Is Negotiable
Fuel prices dropped in Southern California immediately before Memorial Day weekend, contrary to the usual increase blamed on summer travel season demand, refineries inexplicably shutting down, and California's seasonal fuel requirements. Of course the drop didn't erase the $1-per-gallon increase we'd seen since last year. Truck manufacturers, like other automakers, have no idea where fuel prices will be in the model years they're designing for.
Since the first energy crisis in late 1973, every administration has said we need an energy policy, and every administration has failed to deliver one. Reasons are myriad, but politics plays a major role: No one in Washington has the cojones to impose a gasoline tax.
These days, Washington continues the behavior by funding and providing incentives for electric vehicles. The administration wants to cut back on diesel and hydrogen assistance, and the EPA reports that a million electric vehicles by 2015 is a realistic goal.
While it determines the avenue, Washington still touts the free market economy. I am no economist, so I can't tell you how the free market sorts things out when Washington artificially skews everything. I'd rather see what engineers come up with before deciding that I need an electric car, a diesel, hydrogen fuel cell, more advanced gasoline, or hybrid-powered car.
The EPA's million electric vehicles number is based on how many it believes can be built. I find no reference to how many people will buy them, where the battery material will come from, or what grid will charge them. There's also some leeway in what an "electric" vehicle is, since the term appears to include all manner of vehicles that use an internal combustion engine and have a plug.
The prospect of a million vehicles on the road that are strictly electric within four years is optimistic, like Cleveland winning the Super Bowl. I could use an electric car three or four days a week, but on those days I need more, a diesel will do better for me than a Volt, and I haven't space nor budget for a different car every day of the week. And how many of those million electrics will be trucks that can take you from farm to town or tow your bass boat?
So the problem of fueling everything remains, as do absurdities in the web of surrounding regulations. As just one example, consider the American Society for Testing and Materials evaluation of unleaded gasoline for intake valve deposits performed on a 1985 BMW 318i engine: Nothing inherently wrong with that engine, but why not a mainstream engine like a Chevy 350 or Ford 4.6, or dumping the test altogether as direct injection becomes more common.
The U.S. uses about a fourth of the world's oil and pays out about a billion dollars a day to import more oil than anyone else. Yet the U.S. does not take advantage of what oil reserves we do have, because the environmental lobby has convinced Washington to severely limit exploration and drilling permits. If petroleum-producing countries in the Middle East, Africa, South America, or Canada all restricted use of their energy reserves like that, we'd be up the proverbial creek without a jerry can.
Sure, we could use solar panels, which on anything but university-designed bicycle-wheel single-seaters power little more than ventilation fans. We can use wind power wherever there's a breeze -- better than solar in many climes. We can subsidize feedstock into fuel like the NASCAR ethanol tractor brigade, but none of it will fix the problem in the short term.
The recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the first such U.S. catastrophe since the spill in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969, and one could argue both resulted from human error. In that same 40 years, how many oil tankers have puked on the water (again, mostly human error)? Is it really better for the environment to ship it overseas than drill for it? Is there some reason it's more appropriate for other countries to shoulder drilling risk?
Beyond opening up more of the country to exploration and extraction, we could get rid of a lot of bureaucracy. I've never found the government to manage anything better than the private sector, so repeal or revise outdated legislation like the Natural Gas Act and Oil Export Ban. Dump the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which does nothing to control oil prices yet costs billions to stock and maintain. Dismantle the Department of Energy, since oil imports have risen despite its establishment to limit same; if the DOE can't meet its own standards for energy savings (as found in a 2009 audit), how is it going to change the behavior of the masses?
The Energy Information Adminis-tration, yet another bureau, in its 2011 Annual Energy Outlook says growth in petroleum demands will be met by increases in domestic production. It also states production is more responsive to price change than technology gains, perhaps showing we'd be using less if it cost more, as it might if a gas tax had been applied gradually from 1973. Its outlook estimates 2035 oil prices in 2009 dollars at $125/barrel average, around $50/barrel on the low side (where it was from 1985-2005) or up to $200/barrel. Are you ready for $9/gallon gasoline?
I know drilling won't solve the energy problem, only delay it. But if we get realistic about vehicle needs, get an energy policy in place, and recognize energy as part of the global village, maybe it will buy us enough time to get all the alternatives up and running.