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June 30, 2008

A View Toward Synthetic Fuels, And the End of Dependence on Foreign Oil


Imagine, for a minute, that we had a way, right here in America, to produce synthetic fuel that cars could run on, and burn cleaner than gasoline, for a price less than what consumers are presently paying at the pump. It wouldn't just be a breakthrough, it would be possibly the greatest public-policy silver bullet in American history. 
Imagine if a U.S. company figured out a way to mass-produce the stuff and export it worldwide. Take the 10 biggest problems America has right now and it would solve about seven of them.


Provided it burned cleaner, mass adoption of Fuel X would be great for the environment. It would invigorate the economy as well as greatly reduce the trade deficit, as the rest of the world rushed to import it from the U.S. It would make things much easier for consumers sick of paying ever-rising prices for gasoline.


And perhaps most importantly of all, plentiful fuel right here at home would suddenly make it much less necessary to launch ill-advised wars in the Middle East, not to mention put U.S. consumers at the mercy of sudden fluctuations caused by events halfway around the world.


Is such a miracle far away? While promising work is already underway, it probably is. But working toward such a solution – with the government doing everything it can to make it a reality – must move towards the top of any list of domestic policy goals.
The lesson of $4 gas should not be to double down on oil, to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere in order to produce a difference of a few cents in price, 15 years from now, and therefore kick the can down the road so we can have the same debate again a decade hence. It should be to put America in the direction of getting off oil altogether.


Those who see the opening of ANWR as some sort of cure-all for high gas prices fail to release a few facts (or choose not to): Any oil pulled from ANWR would take as long as 15 years to reach the market. By then prices of oil will have likely risen far beyond whatever savings the added supplies would have provided, and the ANWR oil wouldn’t replace foreign oil supplies. It would merely be added to the oil already sold on the open market.


Even Republican nominee John McCain, who supports additional drilling, admitted last week that the benefit of the added supply would be largely “psychological.” As one blogger joked in response, placebo effects tend not to work if the patient knows they’re getting a placebo.


Gas-tax holiday or rollback schemes, meanwhile, are just as bad an idea, mostly because they would lead to a rise in the deficit, a giveaway to oil companies and would have no effect on supply except to deplete it. So said a letter signed by more than 200 economists in early May.


So what can be done in the meantime? Alternative fuels should be embraced fully and unequivocally, with an eye toward eventual energy independence. It's not enough to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We must work toward someday eliminating it, because dependence on it is hurting us in so many different ways.


The good news? There is, to put it mildly, a large amount of consumer demand for cheaper and cleaner fuels. Hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital are headed toward green solutions to America’s problems, including alternative fuels. And there are promising ideas on the horizon.


According to a Q&A on the web site of Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer – an under-the-radar but very intriguing vice presidential prospect for Barack Obama – research is indeed being done into synthetic fuels, a technology that has been around since the early 20th Century, and small plants are being designed today. The process, which makes use of liquefied coal, could emerge as a major part of our energy solution.

The energy economy, the way it is presently constructed, cannot continue. And an energy policy that leaves us dependent on oil for the foreseeable future is no policy at all.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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