Natural Gas Vehicles: an ‘ethanol’-like boondoggle?

(9AM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

Despite all the green washing out there (and there is lots of it, lets be clear), corn-based ethanol is far from a panacea in terms of reducing America’s dependence on imported oil, dependency on fossil fuels, reducing greenhouse gases and representing a good investment for the taxpayer.  While supporting corn ethanol is, it seems, great politics to get through the Iowa primary, independent study after independent study shows that it is not a good deal for the taxpayer, the economy, and the environment.  The absolute ‘best’ case, from honest analysis, is that this is a very costly and inefficient path for very marginal reductions in fossil-foolish dependencies and minimal greenhouse-gas emission reductions. Other analysts come out with the conclusion that we actually lose ground in GHG emissions in returns for the $billions being pumped into corn ethanol.

Right now, we seem to be watching (in slow motion?) a headlong rush into another “ethanol”-like boondoggle driven, in no small part, by the $70 million or so that T Boone Pickens has put behind promotion of The Pickens’ Plan.

There are ‘bipartisan’ bills in both the House and Senate promoting various paths for incentivizing natural gas vehicles (NGVs) with quite significant resources behind them.  These planned expenditures of $10s of billions seem to be moving forward with essentially zero independent analysis of their viability, GHG implications, and, perhaps even more importantly, any comparative analysis of the cost-effectiveness of a mass program for subsidizing natural gas in (for example, the trucking industry) versus the costs of other options for carving away at America’s oil addiction.

One simple question to ask, how much would it cost the nation for every barrel reduction in daily oil demand?  If we price that oil at $100 barrel, every oil of reduced demand equals $36,500 per year in reduced imports. In pure dollar terms, for example, a preliminary analysis shows that it would cost:

  • $75,000 of cost to taxpayers per barrel cut from daily oil  demand via Natural Gas for Truck Transport. This does not, however, include the additional costs for the natural gas to move the trucks (which Congressional action would subsidize) nor the additional costs of  refueling infrastructure (which the Congressional action would subsidize) nor does it account for the additional cost of natural gas for other uses (such as heating our homes) nor does it account for the  pollution impacts of drilling and natural gas burning
  • $36,000 cost to taxpayers per barrel/day cut from oil via electrification  of rail without counting the cost of the electricity but also not counting many other benefits (such as safer highways, reduced maintenance costs on highways, reduced pollution…)
  • $10,000 cost to taxpayers per barrel cut from daily oil deman with the installation of feedback  systems in cars with considerable other benefits including safer roads.

And, there are many — many — more options out there that would likely be more effective on cost, energy, and environmental terms.  We should understand this field of options before leaping ahead with $billions or $10s of billions or even $100s of billions of subsidies.

In the face of Republican opposition to comprehending reality amid the hottest year in recorded history, Senator Harry Reid has declared that the Senate Democrats will back off from pursuing climate legislation in 2010:

“We have a responsibility – both to our constituents and our children –  to take on America’s energy challenge. Many of us want to do that  through a comprehensive bill that creates jobs, breaks our addiction to  oil and curbs pollution.  Unfortunately, at this time not one Republican  wants to join us in achieving this goal. That isn’t just  disappointing.  It’s dangerous.

Thus, a much more limited energy bill will move forward. Sadly, one of those components looks to be inclusion of subsidizing a fossil-foolish subsidy for natural gas transportation:

our country is blessed with abundant resources and we must tap into  those. That is why we will invest in the manufacturing of natural gas  vehicles.

Here is a question for Senator Reid:

You have closely aligned yourself with “your friend, T Boone Pickens” and are promoting his desire for large government investment for expanding natural gas transportation.  Have you had any independent organization do an analysis of the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of such a NGV program? If so, will you release it?  If not, why not?  And, associated, have you had an analysis done of the cost effectiveness for the taxpayer of such a program compared to other options for reducing our oil dependency?

I know of no such analysis re total GHG nor of the relative costs to the taxpayers of various options.  My calculations suggest that a massive investment in natural gas vehicles would be a pretty bad deal for the planet and the taxpayer.  On this, see CAP’s American Fuel: Contaminated on so many levels.

Several notes:  

1.  Not to mention the environmental impacts of natural gas production. See FRACK YOU! Mother Earth!.  There are systems-of-systems implications of any fossil-foolish addiction as much as buses painted green powered by “Clean Natural Gas” might suggest otherwise.

2.  Not to delve into the question as to whether natural gas reserves and potential might be less than promised. See, for example, Natural Gas Could Be A Major Bust: Analyst At Peak Oil Conference (Oct 09) and Shale Natural Gas: The fairy tale continues (Jul 10)/

3.  To be clear, natural gas has a role in the nation’s energy future, to help speed a move toward a lower carbon economy and as part of the transition to a truly clean energy system. NG can even have a role in transportation, with some interesting options as with the PHENGSB (Plug-In-Hybrid Electric Natural School Bus).  The issue is the greenwashing throwing of $billions at NG vehicles when far better options exist — already in hand — to reduce our oil addiction and cut our carbon emissions.