The Journal Editorial Report | January 7, 2005 | PBS
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Briefing and Opinion
January 7, 2005

Alternatives to Oil Dependency

Seven Presidents
The message is not new. Over the past 30 years since the first oil crisis, seven presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush have all called for making this country more self-sufficient in its energy supply, but over those 30 years, our dependence on foreign oil has doubled. Barry Serafin brings this report on current research into alternative fuels.

We now import nearly 60 percent of our oil, two-thirds of which is used for cars and other transportation. Auto fuel economy standards have hardly budged in 20 years and we have squandered decades of opportunity. What happened? "We lost the political will that we had," says Robert Ebel, chairman of the Energy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

No gas Timothy Wirth of the Energy Future Coalition agrees that research efforts have slowed. "Thirty years ago at the time of the Arab Oil Crisis we made some real progress with fuel efficiency standards, with real standards for electric motors and that sort of thing," says Wirth. "We did very well in term of energy and our economy. Since then things have really ground to a halt."

Amy Myers Jaffe, associate director of the Energy Program at Rice University suggests that we are in a net situation today that is worse than we were sitting in 1973 or 1979 because we are more dependent than ever on Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, which are increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, agrees. "Of the Saudi oil, two-thirds goes through one processing plant and two terminals. So the whole economic system of the West -- based on oil -- hangs by that thread," says Lovins.

pipelineThe U.S. has only three percent of the world's oil reserves, but consumes 25 percent of the world's oil. That's why most experts agree that we cannot drill our way to energy independence. "Until we find a substitute for the internal combustion engine to reduce our dependence on gasoline, we're stuck with imported oil," says Robert Ebel.

Some suggest that hydrogen could some day be a suitable substitute. General Motors produces a prototype vehicle that runs on fuel cells that use hydrogen to produce electricity. The electricity powers motors that turn the wheels and move the car. Tim Vail, the director of General Motors Fuel Cell Activities, suggests that this could be the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine. "Our goal is to have the technology ready for the retail marketplace in 2010," says Vail.

That would not mean that hydrogen cars would be readily available by then or that there would be enough hydrogen filling stations needed to support them. President Bush is backing the technology with a $1.7 billion development program. hydrogenIn his State of the Union speech, the president said he hoped that the first car driven by an American child born on that day could be powered by hydrogen and pollution free.

Robert Ebel suggests this may be an overly optimistic estimate. "The only way out to me seems to be to raise the driving age from 16," says Ebel. "You'd have to raise it up to 30 or 40, because a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is not going to be available in massive numbers in 2020." So while hydrogen cars seem to be coming as the main solution to oil dependency, it will not be soon. But there are other alternatives such as more and more use of biomass, fuel made from corn and other plants.

Lee Lynd, a national professor of engineering at Dartmouth College, says there is a scenario in which biomass could replace all of the oil currently being consumed for transportation in this country. "We could shoot for a quarter of mobility demand being met from biomass in a quarter century," says Lynd. "We need to not get into the trap of failing to do anything because we can't do everything fast. If the public demands energy efficient vehicles, we will get them."

Amory Lovins While hydrogen and biomass technology are developed, there is a viable interim technology available right now to reduce our consumption of oil. Consumers have been lining up to buy gas-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius. "It turns out that if in 2025 every car and light truck were as efficient as today's hybrid cars and SUVs, that would displace two Gulf's worth of oil or a sixth of all the oil in the country," says Amory Lovins.

But Detroit has been slow to follow-up with it's own hybrid production says Tim Wirth. "They've introduced this Escape at Ford Motor Company. They are advertised heavily but I went to two Ford dealerships last weekend and I said, 'I'd like to buy an Escape.' They said, 'What's that?'" Energy efficiency expert Amory Lovins says cars could also get far greater mileage now if they were built out of stronger and safer lightweight carbon fiber instead of steel. "You could get, for example, a 66-mile-a-gallon mid-size SUV that will do everything you expect a SUV to do," says Lovins.

desertIn the meantime, there is widespread agreement that new technologies and alternative energy sources collectively could reduce oil dependence or at least slow its growth. But it cannot happen overnight. For now we remain hostages to and guardians of foreign oil. "The Middle East oil is so important to the international economy that the United States will be in a position that we will be having to protect the flow of oil for a long time," says Amy Jaffe.