U.S. News “Energy Independence” smackdown: Climate Progress vs. Dick Cheneys friend

Welcome to any U.S. News and World Report readers who came here because of my piece, “The U.S. Needs to End Its Energy Dependence: This dependence is economically unsustainable and dangerous for our children.” The piece will be in the print edition Monday! [I will provide links to back up the article’s assertiaons below.]

The contrary view, “Energy Independence Is Neither Practical nor Attainable” — that our situation is hopeless, and we must focus on short term solutions — was provided by one J. Robinson West. I know you will be surprised to learn that he is chairman of the oil and gas consulting firm PFC Energy, a former U.S. assistant secretary of the interior under President Reagan, and a [buckshot-free] friend of Dick Cheney’s.

It is also not surprising that he attacks ethanol but never once mentions plug-in hybrids or electricity as an alternative fuel — even though plug ins are a core solution to our rising oil dependence and “electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence.”

It is a tad surprising that he says, “For the past 25 years, the U.S. government has painlessly and shortsightedly encouraged consumption and discouraged production” — since, as we’ve seen, it is conservatives lead by his former boss who have fought efforts to promote conservation and efficiency (see “Who got us in this energy mess? Start with Ronald Reagan“) and since more production (even if it were possible) can’t make a dent in our energy problem, especially as he defines it, which is our vulnerability to soaring global oil prices, a point we agree on.

It is even more suprising that he has the chutzpah to explicitly beat his chest about how politicians have ignored higher mileage standards and mass transit. He must know that it is conservatives like him, Reagan, and Cheney who have fought those policies. It is especially lame that he criticizes government research on solutions as inadequate when his former boss is the one who cut funding for this research 85%!

But what is staggering to me is that this guy is an extreme peak-oiler, although you would never know it from this piece. You’d have to spend a little time on Google to find this stunning quote of his from Newsweek a mere two years ago:

Welcome to the age of energy insecurity. Worldwide production will peak. The result will be skyrocketing prices, with a huge, sustained economic shock. Jobs will be lost. Without action, the crisis will certainly bring energy rivalries, if not energy wars. Vast wealth will be shifted, probably away from the U.S. For the last 20 years, U.S. policy has discouraged production and encouraged consumption. If we dither any more, we will pay a terrible price, the economic equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane. Katrina was Category 4.

And you thought I was an alarmist! Too bad he never offers any real solutions. Too bad he merely gives lip service to criticizing dithering/obstructionist politicians without explaining he is talking about his conservative buddies.

I didn’t get enough space in the article to lay out the full problem and full solution, but regular readers of this blog have certainly seen it detailed. New visitors who are interested should read some of the links below:

12 Responses to U.S. News “Energy Independence” smackdown: Climate Progress vs. Dick Cheneys friend

  1. Earl Killian says:

    Why would we drill for tiny oil pockets, when there is a Ghawar waiting to be tapped right here in the US? Plug-in hybrid efficiency will be the equivalent of another Ghawar. The drill here, drill now movement is so pathetic. All they care about is money in oil company pockets; they don’t care about what really mattes, which is drilling in the King of oil fields: efficiency.

  2. Ronald says:

    Well written piece. They should have just had the other guys piece before yours instead of claiming there are 2 different views of the same problem. His about what to write if you have no solutions and then yours when there are solutions.

    Just how fast can PHEV’s take over the trans. vehicle market? I read it might get to 6 percent of new vehicles sold by 2020. Is that how long it will take?

  3. paulm says:

    Coal, not oil is the big Climate Change problem. If we all switch to electricity then there better be the infrastructure and technology in place to support the transition.

    The switch to electricity can happen over night and we see it right now in the car industry. This would be even more if the product was available. What is bound to happen in the short term is a greater demand for coal electricity – this does not bode well.

  4. red says:

    From the contrarian view: “There is now no liquid fuel that can largely replace oil for transportation. We are stuck because of the scale of the industry and—despite criticism—oil’s efficiency. A gallon of gas, refined from African oil, is cheaper than a gallon of Maine sparkling water. Political alternatives like corn-based ethanol have required huge subsidies and convulsed food markets but produced only 430,000 barrels per day in 2007— 2 percent of U.S. oil consumption.”

    Does a single part of the solution really need to largely replace oil for transportation? How about corn ethanol, and sugar ethanol, and X, Y, Z … ethanol …? Possibly more important, how about adding methanol from numerous sources to that mix? Together these will add up. An ethanol/methanol support mandate for new vehicles would go a long way towards opening up markets for these fuels, enabling large scale research and development, production, and distribution. It would also be fairly painless. If you’re not only interested in energy independence, but are also concerned with climate (as this site is), additional incentives and disincentives could be used to encourage greater use of the more climate-friendly variants.

    If oil can be gathered cheaper than alternatives by a cartel that can raise and lower supply at will, then for energy independence’s sake a high tariff on cartel oil should be helpful.

    How much of the food price increase have been because of increased fuel ethanol use, and how much has been because of other reasons (higher gas prices, for example)? Even corn ethanol has animal feed as a byproduct.

    “Brazil shifted to ethanol. But its ethanol is derived from sugar, the economics of which are dramatically different from those of corn, which has less energy content. And it explored for oil offshore, using Brazilian petrol to cut back oil imports. Commentators also omit that Brazil is a small gasoline market—4 percent the size of the United States—an ignored issue of scale.”

    Nevertheless, for energy independence, remove the tariff on imported sugar ethanol. At least this will spread the energy dependence to more sources, reducing vulnerability.

    Will these measures solve the energy independence problem? Perhaps not, but they’d help.

  5. David B. Benson says:

    red — I agree. Import more ethanol from Brazil and the Caribbean. Follow the lead of the Europeans and especially the CHinese in setting up massive biofuel plantations in Africa.

    I think its a win-win (except for the oil shieks, of course).

  6. red says:

    Joe: “Domestic drilling isn’t part of a serious national energy plan because it won’t reduce our oil dependence or help achieve climate targets. The Energy Information Administration says that offshore drilling would have little impact on production or prices even in 2030 and that drilling in Alaska would cut gas prices only 2 cents by 2025.”

    Domestic drilling may not be a solution to the energy dependence problem. However, it’s hard to see how it would hurt energy independence, unless it were seen as “The Solution”. The way I would treat domestic drilling is to use it as a bargaining chip. Trade it for more promising energy independence steps that domestic drilling advocates would otherwise tend to resist, like increasing CAFE standards again, or increasing the government market for PHEVs … or whatever.

    I would treat steps like increased gas taxes or tariffs, or carbon taxes, the same way. By themselves they’re probably almost impossible to implement politically. At least I’d object to them, and I’ll bet I’m in the mainstream on that. However, make a political deal where some other, comparably sized, and more harmful, tax (income, payroll, etc) is removed or reduced in return, and you might be able to get it passed.

    Joe: “We should aim for all new cars to get more than 100 miles per gallon by 2040, which requires low-carbon alternatives.”

    It may be a small thing in the grand economic and time scales this blog covers, but the $10M Progressive Automotive X PRIZE race with market-capable cars that get 100 mpg should be helpful in achieving this goal: or

    It only became official recently (probably when the sponsor Progressive signed up), but it’s been in development for a couple years. It already has a huge number of teams trying to win, from big manufacturers like Tata, to small startups, to garage teams. Even celebrities like Neil Young and Jay Leno are involved. It may help push the technology, or integration of existing technologies, ahead. It may help start necessary industrial bases, and get some startups off the ground. Students are working on it, so the educational pipeline will be helped. They also have a few million $ from DOE for an education program. I think the main effect will happen when the public (and auto industry elite) sees the (hopefully) highly-publicized cross-country race, and sees that these vehicles can be practical, and many of them are pretty cool, too.

    You want the public to see this energy efficiency and climate stuff as fun and practical, not dull, oppressive, and depressing.

    Hopefully they’ll be able to make more contributions to the energy independence and climate change efforts with the non-food Biofuels Prize and Aviation Fuel Prize they have in development, as well as others they’ve hinted about.

    I’ll bet Joe has some ideas they should hear on how to design these competitions.

  7. Earl Killian says:

    Ronald asks, “Just how fast can PHEV’s take over the trans. vehicle market? I read it might get to 6 percent of new vehicles sold by 2020. Is that how long it will take?

    New technologies typically penetrate the marketplace following something called an S-curve (technically this is modeled by the Fisher-Pry equation, which has two parameters, the year 50% market penetration is reached, and the number of years to go from 10% to 50%). I’ve tried to guess at these parameters by looking at what happened to hybrids, which just reached 2% of the U.S. market in 2007. My feeling from spreadsheet work on this is that PHEVs could hit 10% in 2020, 50% in 2027, and 90% in 2034. If these sales guesses pan out, then PHEVs would represent 27% of the vehicle fleet in 2030, 47% in 2034, and 77% in 2040.

    Please remember that predictions usually say more about the seer than the future. YMMV.

  8. John Hollenberg says:

    > My feeling from spreadsheet work on this is that PHEVs could hit 10% in 2020, 50% in 2027, and 90% in 2034.

    Reasonable if all else is equal. However, if the price of gas keeps going up, it could happen more quickly for economic reasons.

  9. Earl Killian says:

    Let me try to answer red’s point this way:

    How much fuel can be made from agricultural residue (which doesn’t compete with food). ORNL suggests 170 million tons (154 million tonnes) of corn stover is possible. If one assumes 0.38 L ethanol per kg for cellulosic conversion, then you get 58 billion liters or 15 billion gallons, which would make 18 billion gallons of E85. Using 86.4 MJ/gal for the LHV of E85, and 121.3 MJ/gal for the LHV of gasoline, this means the E85 is the equivalent of 13 billion gallons of gasoline. If we assume a fleet average of 60 MPG in 2050, this represents 778 billion miles of VMT. For 420 million people at the current VMT per capita of 9300, we will want to drive 3.9 trillion miles, so this is 20% of US 2050 VMT.

    What if you wanted to power all 2050 driving with E85? Reverse the calculation. 3.9 trillion miles divided by 60 MPG is 65 billion gallons of gasoline (we use 140 billion gallons today, so 60 MPG really helps). Scale by the energy of E85 vs. gasoline and this is 91 billion gallons of E85, which requires 78 billion gallons of ethanol. Subtract the 15 billion gallons from Ag residue, and you need switchgrass for 63 billion gallons of ethanol. Using the switchgrass yields published by Schmer et al. in January’s PNAS, that requires 109 million hectares of land, or 421,000 square miles. The non-Alaska land area of the U.S. is 3,130,800 mi^2, so this requires 13% of the country (I assume Alaska won’t be growing switchgrass unless the deniers/delayers win).

    In contrast, fueling PHEV-60s in 2050 takes about 1000 TWh/year. The land required to generate that much with wind turbines is just 420,000 hectares, or 1,600 mi^2 (using just the space occupied by the turbines, since the rest of the wind farm is dual-use).

    421,000 mi^2 vs. 1,600 mi^2: I know which I would choose. I’d use Ag residue for E85 for the backup fuel for the PHEVs though.

  10. John Mashey says:

    Seconding Earl’s earlier remarks about EFFICIENCY:

    1) One of the world’s hereoes of energy efficinecy is Art Rosenfeld, whose Autobiography is great reading.

    2) Even if all of the electricity for PHEVs were coming from coal, it’s still less CO2 than using gas or diesel, but it isn’t all coming from coal.

    3) In any case, CA has managed for 30 years not increase our electricity/capita, while the US as a whole has gone up ~40-50%. See page 9 of Rosenfeld, May 2, 2007. You can see Electricity use per state. This shows that nearby states vary widely in their efficiency, and there are efficient states in the North as well as elsewhere.

    Alternatively, a thought-provoking chart is that seen in Electricity consumption by state by political orientation (2004 election).

    Many states’ PUC rules reward utilities for generating megawatts. This makes utilities and coal producers happy. It doesn’t reward efficiency. If you reward efficiency, people get more efficient.

    States differ in climate, industry, transport, and economy, so not everyone can get to the same place.

    BUT, there could be a huge number of PHEVs on the roads, with *zero* additional coal plants. All it takes is for the US as a whole to get half as serious about efficiency as some states already are. Of course, coal producers may have a different viewpoint.

  11. Ronald says:

    Thanks Earl for the estimates on new vehicle PHEV’s. Like you said who knows.

    Wasn’t it in World War II the United States was building military Jeeps on car assembly lines 6 months after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Some of it is in how bad we want it.

    It’ll be at least mildly interesting which will take off more and where, whether it will be Prius type vehicles or PHEV’s. I suppose you are thinking it will be PHEV’s that have the larger sale volume.

  12. Earl Killian says:

    Ronald, yes, I’ve heard that WW II retooling was quite amazing. Of course vehicles were simpler then too. The S-curve is for normal consumer technology adoption decisions. It applies broad (e.g. DVDs replacing VCRs, or 3.5 in disk drives replacing 5.25 in) . What happens in a situation like WW II is not consumer driven of course.