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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.
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
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.
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
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.
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