Big Oil can't get beyond petroleum.

They are the authors of 'Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability.'

"/> Outlook: Big oil can't get beyond petroleum - The Washington Post Big Oil can't get beyond petroleum.

They are the authors of 'Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability.'


Outlook: Big oil can't get beyond petroleum

Jun 14, 2010

Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, and Deborah Gordon, former chemical engineer with Chevron and a transportation policy consultant, discussed their Outlook article titled Big Oil can't get beyond petroleum.

They are the authors of 'Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability.'

In the article you said, "The venture capital community is investing heavily in biofuel technology, but those sums are still tiny compared with what's needed..." How do you know what is needed?

You are correct to question what is "needed". We really have no way of definitively determining how much R&D is needed and how much biofuels is needed. But if we believe that large reductions are needed in oil consumption and/or greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades, then we need huge investments in low-carbon alternatives, such as biofuels. If you don't believe in need for oil reductions or GHG reductions, then it is true we don't "need" biofuels. I believe the evidence is strong that major changes are needed.

Dan Sperling

Everyone is irate at BP and the government about the oil spill, but isn't the public, with its insatiable demand for fossil fuels, really to blame?

Tom Friedman in NYT yesterday quoted Pogo saying "I haqve seen the enemy and he is us."  That is an overstatement but largely correct. We do need to reduce demand, but policy is needed, and so it is us as voters that is just as important as us as consumers. We need policiues that redirect oil and vehicle suppliers to behave in the public interest.

Dan sperling

I find it interesting that science shows the best source of fuel is algae. Is produces far more fuel than does cane sugar, corn, or drilled oil. It is also far less expensive to produce. Yet, the hugh investments made in oil and ethanol seem to be what is stopping research into switching into a less expensive and more productive product. What will it take for big oil to see if algae is indeed productive and a better source?

There are many biofuel sources under consideration. Algae is a potentially attractive one. But the economics of oil will play a large role in their ultimate success. The rollercoaster of the oil market creates real problems for biofuels from algae and all other alternatives to oil

I basically agree with all that you have written. So what do you think will realistically occur? Do you think Big Oil is going to magically change? Do you recommend the government take over Big Oil? What about taxing to reduce consumption? Can America stomach that? Are you optomistic that a solution will be found without goverment forcing the hand and will the public accept that in your opinion?

Government should not and cannot take over big oil. But we do need a rational energy policy. An price floor on oil would do a lot to help moderate the wild swings in the oil market that Big Oil can tolerate, but all other start-up companies cannot.

In this country, there is more natural gas in new finds (Marcellus, Bartlett, etc.) in value that there is gold in Fort Knox and proven domestic oil reserves combined. Gas is cleaner and cheaper to handle than gasoline. No mention of this in the article. BTW: Who owns the sun, the wind, the tides and the oceans? Not big oil. That's why they don't want to develop them.

The best use of our natural gas (which can be cleaner than oil although methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2) is in power plants to generate electricity for electric vehicles and plug in hybrids. the transformation to burning natural gas in our cars is expensive and not a good long term investment both economically or environmentally

Do you have any idea how much energy is required to produce Hydrogen which can be used to produce electricity? Due it's relative rarity and the laws of thermodynamics hydrogen will never be a feasible replacement for fossil fuels. To his credit Dr. Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy has recognized this and tried to kill funding for hydrogen research while promoting research into carbon sequestration, which is what you need to do if you recognize that fossil fuels will be the dominate energy source for the next 200 years. Your article is typical pseudo-science of the Star-Trek generation.

I respectfully disagree.  There are many ways to make hydrogen, just as with electricity and even biofuels. One way is with coal--a fossil fuel. One can gasify coal, capture the CO2 and are left with hydrogen. Because H2 has no carbon, pne can capture and sequester almost all the carbon, unlike options in which coal is converted into liquid fuels that contain carbon

Dan Sperling

The authors did not mention Climate Change. Some scientists estimate that the people of the Earth must cut carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent to keep the Earth's temperature from rising to dangerous levels. That would imply that almost no fossil fuels could be used directly by burning and dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Given the massive PR efforts by the fossil fuel companies, how can people be persuaded to accept such a massive cutback in the use of these fuels, especially as most people in developing nations are only now beginning to enjoy the sort of transport which we in the US take for granted, that is to say, private automobiles?

For much elaboration on climate change, please read our book -- Two Billion Cars. Climate Change is the central focus along with energy concerns when it comes to our mobility. These two issues are completely intertwinned.

I am a bit baffled. The Model T got 25 mpg. The Citroen 2CV designed before World War Two got 60 mpg. My 1988 Pontiac LeMans got between 30-48 mpg and had A/C, power steering/brakes and plenty of other amenities. These were all conventional gas engines using pre-1980 technology. With all the advances in automotive technology, why are so few vehicles produced and consumed in this country that get better than 30mpg in the city? We could certainly make what oil we do have go a lot further without Hummers and their gas-guzzling ilk.

Good question. The proiblem is low oil prices and lack of incentive for consumers and carmakers. This is where we need policy to make sure consumers and carmakers are acting in the pulic interest--preferably providing as much flexibi8lity as possible and using market forces as much as possible. The Obama standards for vehicles that call for 35.5 mpg by 2016 are a good start. Gasoline taxes are unpopular so we probably will continue to use perfromance standards to achieve this goal.

Dan Sperlng

I have two questions: First, why will it take BP two months to drill a relief well to plug the hole? Second, how much responsibility does the government bear? From pushing oil drilling away from the shore to allowing a company with many safety violations (I read that BP had a bunch compared to other oil companies that had less than 5 each) it seems like it was a perfect storm of government nudging and BP cost cutting/negligence. Your thoughts?

BP is in uncharted territory in the Gulf. They are in 1 mile of water and the well itself is some 18,000 feet below the ocean floor. A much shallower well in Australia that had a SIMILAR spill and explosion took 10 weeks to fix. As for drilling closer to shore. The Gulf of Mexico was called the "dead sea" before the deep and ultradeep exploratory wells were drilled. Americans are going to have to accept that there's not cheap, easily accessible oil left in the US. That's the first step to moving on.

Hello, Are we all willing to pay more for cleaner, domestic energy? I've been developing technol for biofuels for 10 years and it is a reality that it costs more to produce biofuels from renewable resources for a multitude of reasons. WalMart stock performs well and is reflective of American society which wants affordable items. Will the majority pay more for fuels that cause less environmental damage?

Interestingly we are going to be forced to pay more for oil since ultradeep water oil (like the BP well) and other unconventional oil will cost more to produce and process than conventional crude. If only we could politically sustain higher prices now, then cleaner alternative fuels would be competitive sooner rather than after dirty unconventional oil floods the market.

Why is there no mention of nuclear power in your piece?

This is a very important distinction. One that is lost on nearly everyone. Today there is a push to replace liquid fuels to power our transportation sector. Nuclear power and a host of renewable energy sources cannot serve the transportation sector today, since we do not plug in in order to drive. A move to an electrified transportation system makes a lot of sense. Once we go there, we can use a much broader array of energy sources to power our mobility.

I agree with your article. But I'm pretty discouraged by it too. If we can't depend on Big Oil to invest, what policy mechanisms can the government implement to speed the transition away from oil?

Current polls show that, unfortunately, the public trusts government LESS than industry. Clearly, this needs to change. The best policy mechanisms are a price floor on oil (to level the playing field for clean alternative fuels and unconventional oil, both of which are more expensive than today's oil) along with low carbon fuel standards that create market incentives for Big Oil to produce or buy offsets from cleaner fuel producers

The technology for the electric motor is well established. If the energy storage problem is solved, electric cars can replace the combustion engine in relatively short time. If this is technically feasible in the next decade, what do you see as the challenges to replacing the fleet of American combustion engines with electric cars?

Electric cars, inckluding plug-in hybbrids are an important part of the solution. The greatest challenge continues to be the high cost of batteries. They are coming down, but still are very expensive. Most electric cars into the foreseeable future will be small city cars, plus plug-in hybrids with small batteries. the Nissan Leaf and the GM Volt are good early entrants, but both have large batteries and not likely to be the domiant offerings--at least for another couple of decades or so. But EVs are here to stay!

Dan Sperling

Aside from searching for ever more new sources of ever more liquid fuels, at some point we will have to reach "peak consumption" even if sources like algae work out. The single best place to make demand match up with supply is greater efficiency in use of what we do consume: higher MPGs, more use of transit and ride sharing. However, a company devoted to selling fuel is not going to work on helping customers consume less of its product. In electricity markets, regulators have found inventive means to reward utilities for managing demand (replace old fridges, give away CFLs, time-of-use billing, etc.) even though these lead to lower sales than without such conservation measures. But conservation is the "cheapest form of generation" and far easier than permitting, financing and building a new power plant. How can we apply that model to the liquid fuel market, and make higher MPGs a win for everyone? Is high fuel price the only driver (whether from market tightening, cap & trade permit costs, or direct fuel taxes)?

A three-prong strategy is required. We need to improve cars (vastly increase their fuel economy), transition to low carbon, clean fuels, and transform our mobility so that we no longer are a car monoculture. This is what we explore in depth in our book, Two Billion Cars.

How do we educate state and federal legislators that investment in rail is an investment in our nation's energy future?

At present the rails are predominantly used to haul freight. That's a good thing as that means there are fewer trucks on the road. Freight right of way on rail lines will not allow high speed rail use. Still, investing in new rail lines is very expensive. But if it is done smartly (think Portland) it can be a very good thing for the local economy and liveablility. But it is not a silver bullet. And rail should not be oversold as the answer.

What short-term, politically achievable policy steps do you think should be implemented on the demand side to reduce energy consumption?

We need to change the incentives and bolster regulation. Increased CAFE standards have been passed for the first time in 30 years. That's good news! But the price of gas is volatile and still relatively inexpensive in the US.  Economic incentives are key. We can't solve all of our problems with regulation.

When the sun and wind can have a commodity price, energy companies will invest in new technology! Am I cynical or speaking the truth? Folks think solar technology was invented in the 1970s. Solar theories have existed since the 1800s.

Basically correct. We need to put a price on carbon and oil insecurity. But there are less direct ways to do that as well, such as requiring electricty companies to produce xx% from renewable sources.

Dan Sperling

What are some concrete steps individual citizens can take now to encourage significant investment in renewable biofuels?

There is little the general public can do to directly advance R&D on clean energy innovations. It will take sound policies that the public can get behind, telling their elected officials what they want. Support a price floor on oil (higher oil prices), a Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and much greater public sums spend on R&D for low-carbon transportation fuels.

The Chevy Volt is designed to get 5 miles per kilowatt-hour. At a rough national average of 10 cents per Kwh, that's 2 pennies per mile, or one-fourth of what it costs to run a 30 MPG car at $2.40 per gallon today. So electric cars will cut the cost of short-haul auto travel by a factor of at least four, and more as oil prices rise. From 1990 to 2008, aggregate global wind power grew fifty times. (See: Who'll solve the wind turbine supply crisis?(third paragraph).) You say oil companies plan to invest $ 1 trillion in more fossil fuels during the next decade. If we as a nation invested only half that amount, $500 billion, in wind energy, how far could we get from our present national share of electricity from wind (1-2 percent)? That is, what fraction of our current national electrical energy needs coming from wind alone (which is free) would a $500 billion capital investment in windmills and their infrastructure buy?

Until we transform our vehicle fleet to electricity, discussions about wind energy do not relate to the transportation sector with its 300 million cars on US roads. Electrification is a key strategy for the future of transportation. For now, discussions about wind energy won't do clean up our mobility demands.

Extremely cogent piece. Fortunately or otherwise (it came up in two other questions) I spent a bit of the weekend with Bill McKibben and Lester Brown. Don't you marginalize Climate Change by not framing the article that way (as a matter of discourse, not the info in your good book) ? And so should the close of your piece read not "dirty and dangerous" (since that is merely unfortunate), but "dirty and disastrous"?

In our book, Two Billion Cars, we focus on the dual issues of oil dependence and climate change. While these are not mutually exclusive, especially from a climate perspective, they are politically independent concerns. Interestingly, they are rarely in the news at the same time. Climate issues are relegated to long-term concerns while oil policy (whether its the BP spill today or the Arab Embargo of the early 70s) are usually crises. So it's best to be informed on both arenas. Energy cannot detract from climate and vice versa.

How does someone living in Rural America transform and get away from car monoculture? If they live on the farm they need internal combustion vehciles to survive etc. You can not farm and make a profit today with oxen-powered plows etc.

The more remote locations, in the long run, will best served by either electric vehicles (generated more sustainably a distance away) or locally-produced biofuels.

Obama gets a bill passed tomorrow that says: every car and truck from 2014 on must be hybrid or electric. How much would that decrease our dependency on oil? Why can't the politicians just move on this? All car companies can produce hybrid cars - they just need the right push.

Even if the government could adopt such a fiat in a democracy, it would still take up to half a century to get all the gasoline cars off the road. (Less than 10% of the vehicle fleet is replaced each year). Moreover, we will need liquid fuels (clean biofuels?) for trucks, planes, and ships. EVs are a big part of the solution. But they are not a silver bullet.

I don't understand why the president is focused on a problem he can do nothing about (a gusher a mile underwater) and spending so little time and capital on doing something he can change and improve (our development of an alternative energy future). Why can't President Obama instead pledge to create a National Alternative Energy Research and Development Center in New Orleans? With Southern, Dillard, Tulane, Loyola, UNO, and Xavier the city has several fine academic institutions to help attract researchers and professors. Such a center would be a great boon to a very distressed region. And, it would be far more beneficial to the country than extracting the 3 cents worth of oil we have under our coastlines. Like NASA in Houston and Huntsville, such a center is something a president can do. Stopping the gusher will take months and as we know from Exxon Valdez, cleaning up the mess will never really be finished.

Great idea. But it needs to be funded in a big way to really be able to move R&D to demostration and commercialization. There need to be two major government efforts spurred by this catastrophe: next generation spill prevention and control techniques and next generation R&D on non oil fuels.

I'm a bit confused by the last couple lines of your timely and compelling article. Your argument seems to be that oil companies are structurally incapable of leading a new, clean energy revolution, despite their pronouncements. But the end of your piece suggests that, despite this, they need to step up to the plate and make real investments in alternatives, or else we'll be dependent on dirty fossil fuels into 2100. What is the solution? Massive gov't R and D investments in alternatives that could make those clean-tech start-ups viable competitors? An aggressive RPS nationwide? Finally, considering that BP may still turn a profit this year despite the ongoing cataclysm in the Gulf, I'm wondering if any climate legislation that puts some price on carbon could really move us away from oil, coal, etc.? Thank you.

The answer is going to depend on economic incentives and regulation, supported by greater investment in clean  transportation energy R&D. This will entail a price floor on oil (to stabilize markets and allow alternative investments) as well as a Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Revenues from a price floor on oil can provide massive public investments in clean non-oil R&D.

Thank you all for your interesting questions and for joining us. Bye

In This Chat
Rocci Fisch
Daniel Sperling
Daniel Sperling is director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis. He is co-author of 'Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability.'
Deborah Gordon
Deborah Gordon is a former chemical engineer with Chevron and a transportation policy consultant. She is co-author of 'Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability.'
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