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Why Bother Switching to Alternative Fuels?

[Note added 11 September 2006: I was reviewing the content and organization of my website, and I realized that I haven't revised this page in seven years. I think that, rather than update it, I will remove the link from my top page and just let it sit as a "historical document"; five years after the attacks of 9/11/2001, I think most people understand the necessity of reducing America's, and the world's, petroleum use.]

Good question. After all, gasoline prices are near their lowest levels ever (adjusted for inflation), and gasoline-powered vehicles are cleaner-running than ever before. A few 1998 and later cars produce even less pollution than my 1993 natural-gas-burning van! So why rock the boat? Well, even if the economic risk of another oil price shock seems remote at present, and even if the environmental degradation caused by a modern petroleum-powered vehicle is less than that caused by previous models, alternative fuels can still make important, and many people would argue necessary, improvements in the following areas:

Energy Security

The most obvious way alternative fuels can improve our nation's situation compared to continued dependence on petroleum is by reducing its dependence on imported petroleum. On the first page of this website, I referred to the old saying "Don't put all your eggs in one basket," noting that the United States has done exactly that by relying almost exclusively on petroleum for its transportation. There's another, less old saying: "Put all your eggs in one basket, and watch that basket." That's what we maintain a large and expensive troop presence in the Middle East to do; Iraq's grab of Kuwait was a threat to our national security because of the implied threat to impose its will on all the neighboring oil-producing countries as well, and thence on our economy.

Estimates of the cost that protecting foreign energy supplies adds to gasoline vary, but a lot of the estimates converge at about 20 cents per gallon; that's money paid in taxes, not at the fuel pump, and of course it doesn't include the human cost of, say, the Gulf War. And in the short term (like spring 1996, for example), price run-ups due to our dependence on imported petroleum can add up to a lot more than 20 cents a gallon. Domestically-produced alternative fuels are a buffer against shocks like this, and can reduce the need to "watch that basket" in the Middle East at such high cost.

Health

The improvements in the environment due to improved pollution controls, especially those on motor vehicles, since the 1960's are undeniable. Many areas, even in Southern California, that used to have multiple smog alerts in a year now have just a few, or none. And the elimination of lead from gasoline, with the resulting reduction in developmental risk to children, has to be one of the biggest public health success stories in history.

However, the present state of the environment in many areas of the country is still just plain not good enough; the lung capacity of children growing up in Los Angeles, for example, is still 10% to 15% less than that of children growing up in cities with cleaner air. Moreover, there are some trends that do not bode well for maintenance of the status quo, let alone for further improvements. One result of prosperity and of low fuel prices is that vehicle miles driven per year have been inexorably and rapidly increasing. Moreover, because of changing tastes as well as decreasing consumer concern about fuel costs, light trucks (pickups, minivans and sport utility vehicles) have become increasingly popular relative to smaller cars; since these consume more fuel and produce more pollution than the smaller cars they are displacing, the increasing number of vehicle miles per year are also being driven in a decreasingly clean and efficient manner.

There are plenty of other sources of pollution that can be cleaned up besides motor vehicles, of course. For example, a two-stroke personal watercraft engine run for several hours pollutes as much as an average new car driven 100,000 miles, and gasoline leaf-blowers, lawnmowers, etc. produce as much pollution in Los Angeles as all the airplanes flying out of the airport. But because driving is such a big part of life in this country, there's no way to get around the fact that motor vehicles are a big part of the problem, and cleaning them up has got to be a big part of the solution. If people are driving more (and no politician is going to commit career suicide by trying to force them to drive less), then the cleanness of the vehicles being driven has to continue to improve, and alternative fuels are an extremely effective way to accomplish that.

Alternative fuels can make big, immediate improvements. Replacing one diesel transit bus with a natural-gas-powered version cuts pollution as much as removing over a hundred gasoline cars from the road! Moreover, an alternative-fueled vehicle can make even larger improvements as time goes on. Since gaseous fuels like natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas don't cause as much engine wear as gasoline or diesel fuel, the emissions of a vehicle using these fuels will deteriorate more slowly than those of a gasoline or diesel-powered vehicle. An electric vehicle will actually get cleaner over time as the power plants from which it recharges are upgraded!

These are inherent advantages of the alternative fuels mentioned, and are in addition to any advances made in general emissions technology that are also applicable to petroleum fuels. I noted above that a few 1998 and later gasoline cars (with small engines!) run cleaner than my 1993 natural-gas-burning van (with a 5.2 liter V-8!), but in the five years since my van was made, natural-gas vehicles have maintained and even widened their emissions advantage over gasoline vehicles. The natural-gas-burning 1998 Honda Civic GX is the cleanest internal-combustion-engine vehicle ever tested by the EPA.

So Why Not Just Scrap Old Cars?

If newer cars are cleaner than old ones, both because of improving emissions technology and because of deterioration with age of whatever technology was installed when each car was new, then another way to improve the average cleanliness of the vehicle fleet would be to remove older vehicles from the road. I don't disagree with this point; however, I, and many others, would argue that this is neither a cost-effective way to make improvements in the environment, nor is it a way to make significant improvements at all, especially compared to wide-scale introduction of alternative fuels. As reported in the 19 May 1995 issue of Science, roadside measurements by Beaton et al. of emissions of cars in California in 1991 demonstrated that the dirtiest 20% of brand new cars, those less than a year old, were worse than the cleanest 40% of twenty-year-old cars! This means that maintenance has a far bigger effect on automotive emissions than age, so that money can more effectively be spent on helping people keep their cars in tune than on encouraging them to scrap them as they age.

Moreover, the older cars targeted by scrappage programs are relatively few in number; encouraging maintenance of newer cars, and/or supplanting them with alternative-fueled cars in the new-car market, gives you a lot more places to make an improvement, and also helps ensure that these cars' emissions go up less with age than they would otherwise. Finally, bear in mind that the only recycling market that is economically viable without government intervention (in the form of requiring deposits on cans and bottles, say) is your friendly neighborhood junkyard; crushing cars instead of allowing them to be "parted out" when they end their useful lives changes them from valuable spare parts into low-value scrap metal and landfill. This is conservation? And this doesn't even address the recurring question of whether the cars bought by scrappage programs are actually being removed from the driving fleet, or if they're really being removed from garages and yards where they've been sitting unused. Since scrappage programs are run by companies in exchange for the right to evade pollution restrictions to which they would otherwise have been subject, this means such programs may actually increase pollution!

Economy

The recent debate over the Kyoto summit on global warming has included a lot of statements about the dire economic consequences of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions; these always seem to boil down to an assumption that, say, a 20% cut in such emissions is only achievable by making a 20% cut in all economic activity. The same kind of arguments seem to be made about cuts in ordinary pollutant emissions; the implicit assumption is that significant cuts in pollution will require either drastically expensive improvements in emission technology or hideously unpopular measures to force reduction of driving miles.

Both sets of assumptions ignore the win-win nature of efficiency gains. If you can use less energy, or less expensive energy, to do a given task, then not only do you save energy and the pollution caused by generating it, but you save money, and over time this can pay you back for a higher initial cost. This is true of compact fluorescent bulbs, which carry three or four times the price tag of incandescent bulbs but which last ten times as long and use one fifth the power; it is also true of a natural-gas-burning bus or van, which costs perhaps 10-15% more than a petroleum-powered version but can pay that off in reduced fuel and maintenance costs in as little as a year or two (besides producing 25% less carbon dioxide and 50 to 90% less ordinary pollution).

Another area of economic gain to be realized by increased use of alternative transportation fuels is in the fuel industry itself. According to the preliminary figures I've seen, petroleum imports accounted for their largest fraction of U.S. consumption ever in 1997. The money spent on imported petroleum is not entirely flushed down the drain as far as the United States economy is concerned, of course; a significant number of jobs result from transporting it here. But replacing imported petroleum with alternative fuels produced domestically, as almost all of the current supplies of these fuels are, would result in a net gain of jobs and wealth here at home.

Finally, there are new industries to be developed that are going to be developed somewhere, and might as well be developed here with the attendant increase in jobs and wealth. This wealthy nation may, with a large expenditure of money, be able to clean up our air without changing our reliance on petroleum; automakers have, indeed, worked wonders with gasoline engine emissions (it's just that the improvements are bigger and easier with alternative fuels). However, countries whose economies are just now beginning to develop to the point of having a large market for personal automobiles--China springs to mind--already have severe air pollution problems, and are not going to be able to afford expensive clean transportation like 21st century American gasoline cars. They will need to, and are already taking the steps to, "leapfrog" the petroleum-transportation stage and go directly to large-scale introduction of natural-gas and electric transportation. As I have noted elsewhere, when built in large numbers electric vehicles (especially simple ones without all the convenience features expected in this country) should be cheaper than internal-combustion-engine vehicles, and natural-gas vehicles can pay for themselves with fuel and maintenance savings; these make sense overseas and here, and the United States is in a good position to build and sell them, and reap the jobs and profits, with its high-tech industrial base.

Yet there is a lot of resistance out there to promoting environmental technologies and the jobs they can create. For example, photovoltaic (or solar-electric) power is now a $1 billion per year industry, with 100 megawatts of generating capacity added each year, and it is growing at a 16% annual rate. There is great export potential here in the "leapfrog" markets overseas; like companies that are building satellites to give cellular-phone service to equatorial countries with lots of jungle and desert so they don't have to string telephone lines, there are companies selling solar cells to these same countries so they can electrify without having to build a power-distribution infrastructure in their rural areas. Even some of the biggest petroleum companies, Shell Oil and British Petroleum, are now making large investments in solar and other renewable energy sources. Yet in spite of this "real world", profitable, job-creating success, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) referred to solar power as "the hippies' program from the seventies" in a May, 1997 speech to the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Now is that what you'd call a pro-business attitude? (For this and other such remarks, Americans for Clean Energy bestowed on him their first "Dark Vader" Award.) Again, there are lots of exports to be sold, lots of profits to be made, lots of jobs to be created in environmental technologies; they're ours for the taking, or we can cede them to others.

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new 11 July 1998, revised 11 September 2006