C Douglas Weir
by C Douglas Weir

In the past weeks, crude oil prices have defied gravity, Venezuela has threatened to nationalize its oil industry and gas prices have vaulted over three bucks per gallon. Meanwhile, the outgoing chairman of ExxonMobil is reportedly ready to collect some $400 million in retirement benefits and the President of the United States is busy weighing military curtailment of Iran's nuclear aspirations vs. the threat of mines littering the oil-tanker conduit known as the Strait of Hormuz. How much more bad news will it take before we remove our heads from sphincter entrapment? U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman's recent comments at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) World Congress in Detroit offer a clue.

"One of the reasons we have such high energy prices is there are no alternatives," Mr. Boardman pronounced. So America's Energy Czar has decreed that alternative energy is no longer the PC term for snatching government grant money. All those dismissive conclusions bedeviling solar, biofuel, hydro, and wind energy for the past thirty years or more—they're not "cost effective solutions"– are now moot at the highest levels. It's joyous news for long-time supporters of US energy independence, but how will this translate into government policy?

As Ted Kennedy's sabotage of Nantucket's Cape Wind project proves, it's still energy politics as usual down in Washington. And while "green" energy generation is all well and good, our immediate needs would be better served with another "alternative": more aggressive oil and natural gas extraction right here in the USA. And if nuclear power's good enough for Iran… Rightly or wrongly, environmentalism is not helping America's alleged quest for energy independence. Unless politicians jettison our country's "Not In My Backyard" mindset and throw some legislative weight behind any and all non-import energy sources, Bodman's words are nothing more than the same old lip service.

Secretary Bodman also likes ethanol, the grain-based fuel used to supplement oil-based petroleum spirits. Bodman described US-sourced, domestic ethanol E85 as "what I find exciting" and concluded that "we need to have more [E85 compatible] flex-fuel vehicles on the market of all types and classes." No surprise there. For a reported two or three hundred bucks per vehicle for flex fuel technology, Bodman's dream gets real. But as we've discussed here before, E85's corrosive nature make distribution a monumental challenge. While the government should increase its tax and regulatory assistance to the ethanol industry, there's only one way to make bio-fuels work on a sufficiently epic scale to affect the amount of oil imports: a brand new ethanol-friendly national pipeline network. Of this no mention was made.

Bodman is now into the new low-emission 50-state-legal diesels. Perhaps that will result in an influx of the highly praised Eurodiesels (some made over there by our "Big Three") to power a portion of our fleets. And yes, the Secretary of Energy is also hip to hybrids and plug-in hybrids. More specifically, Bodman announced that the Department of Energy's Advanced Energy Initiative is seeking $6.7m to aid in the further development of plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV's). Well, that's great, but that figure stands in pathetic contrast to the Exxon exec's retirement fund. Let's face it: the federal government loses more than $6.7m in spilled coffee every day. If America is going to end its so-called oil addiction, we're not going to do it by trying to pay for our rehab with pocket change.

Bodman concluded by stating that the DOE's ultimate goal is putting virtually emission-free, hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles on the road by 2020, with mass-market acceptance by 2040. That's great, but how are we going to get there? Is the government going to let hydrogen (i.e. petroleum) manufacturers 'sequester' carbon by-products underground? Are our elected officials moving to implement a nationwide initiative to create, license, regulate and prevent Kennedy-esque sabotage for hundreds of thousands of hydrogen micro-refineries using wind, thermal, tidal, biomass, coal and oil to power the conversion process?

Petroleum has been a great date as far as energy romances go. Bodman says it's over. Words are cheap. The US government needs to start making the bold, large and yes, expensive decisions that will draw a line under our oil infatuation. Or…we can all just wait until the inevitable interruption of our oil supply rips the status quo to bits. Meanwhile, for the last four days I have driven by my local Indiana Chevy dealer and seen GM's new Tahoe SUV's with large 'FLEX FUEL' banners on them. In light of the fact there is no available E85 in our area, the promotion seems like trying to sell amphibious vehicles in the desert. If you want a metaphor for the PC-driven impotence of America's current energy policy, well, there it is.

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