Pass the Open Fuel Standard

by Robert Zubrin
Congress should mandate that cars accept more kinds of fuel, to maximize our energy options.

On June 25, a bipartisan group of congressmen led by Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), Steve Israel (D., N.Y.), Allyson Schwartz (D., Pa.), Collin Peterson (D., Minn.), and Tom Cole (R., Okla.) introduced an excellent bill to the House floor: H.R. 2493, the Open Fuel Standard Act of 2013.

In just six clearly written pages, this piece of legislation would act forcefully to defend the United States from the rapacious Islamist-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries oil cartel.

Specifically, the bill would require that, by 2016, 30 percent of all new cars sold in the U.S. be “qualified vehicles” offering consumers an alternative to petroleum-derived fuels. This number would increase to 50 percent by 2018.

According to the bill, “qualified vehicles” could include any of the following: compressed-natural-gas cars, electric cars, biodiesel cars, and fully flex-fuel (methanol-ethanol-gasoline capable) cars. No winners are picked, though from a practical standpoint it is clear that the vast majority of the qualified vehicles will be flex-fuel. That’s because all cars sold in the U.S. already have the essentials of flex-fuel capability engineered into them and only need to have their software enabled, their spark tables corrected, and a few plastic fuel-pump seals replaced with methanol-compatible alternatives to become fully functional methanol-ethanol-gasoline flex-fuel cars.

The effect of doing this would be profound. Methanol can be made from natural gas, coal, recycled trash, or any kind of biomass and is currently selling on the spot market for $1.60 per gallon (and its average price since January 2012 has been about $1.35 per gallon) without any subsidy. Methanol contains only about half as much energy per gallon as does gasoline, but since it is 110 octane fuel, it can be burned more efficiently. In China, where coal-derived methanol (costing less than $0.50 per gallon to produce, and $1.00 per gallon to buy) is now being introduced into the fuel market, the general rule of thumb is that methanol obtains about 60 percent of the mileage that gasoline does. In experiments reported on National Review Online, this writer took a 2007 Chevy Cobalt (which is supposedly not a flex-fuel car), activated its flex-fuel capability, and obtained 24 miles per gallon on the highway. Using gasoline, the same car obtained 36 highway miles per gallon. (From a fuel-economy point of view, this was equivalent to getting around 50 miles per gallon on gasoline.)

The United States currently has a massive glut of cheap natural gas and vast amounts of coal. If the Open Fuel Standard were passed, both of these resources could be utilized to make methanol in nearly unlimited amounts, thereby ending our nation’s dangerous and very costly dependence on foreign oil. Furthermore, if the United States were to require that cars sold in this country give consumers fuel choice, foreign car makers would be compelled to switch their lines over as well. As a result, Japanese, Korean, and European cars sold around the world would all become flex-fuel, forcing gasoline to compete at the pump against methanol everywhere. This would put a permanent global competitive constraint on the price of oil.

The importance of doing this cannot be overstated. Despite some recent growth in oil production and a depressed economy that has reduced U.S. oil consumption by 15 percent since 2007, the United States remains by far the largest oil importer in the world. We currently import about 4.4 billion barrels per year, which at a price of $100 per barrel costs the nation $440 billion per year — equivalent to the loss of 5 million jobs at $88,000 per year each. Furthermore, as a result of this dependency, every time the price of oil goes up, the American economy experiences a tremendous tax — payable ultimately through the world market to the state-run oil companies of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries — which depresses our economy severely. This can be seen clearly in the graph below, which compares oil prices (adjusted for inflation to 2010 dollars) to the U.S. unemployment rate from 1970 to the present. Every oil-price hike for the past four decades, including those in 1973, 1979, 1991, 2001, and 2008, was followed shortly afterward by a sharp rise in American unemployment.

The Open Fuel Standard would end this vulnerability.

On the same day that the bipartisan group introduced the Open Fuel Standard Act, President Obama announced his own energy policy. The contrast between the two approaches could not be more stark.

Where the Obama plan seeks to commit America’s natural-gas resources to replacing American coal, the OFS would create expanded global transportation-fuel markets for both American coal and natural gas, at the expense of OPEC oil.

Where Obama’s plan would drive up energy prices, the OFS would force them down. Where Obama’s plan reduces competition, the OFS would increase it. Where Obama’s plan would render vast American resources useless, the OFS would radically expand their usefulness. Where Obama’s plan would explode the federal deficit, the OFS would cut it drastically. Where Obama’s plan would throw millions of Americans out of work, the OFS would create millions of jobs. Where the Obama plan would protect OPEC, the OFS would break it. Where Obama’s plan would weaken America and strengthen her adversaries, the OFS would strengthen America and weaken her adversaries.

The No. 1 purpose of the federal government is national defense. Since 1973, the United States has been subjected to repeated looting by a cartel of foreign governments inimical to freedom and Western civilization. It is long past time to take effective action to protect America from these attacks.

The OFS would do exactly that. American patriots should rally to secure the passage of this essential bill.

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy and the author of Energy Victory. His latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was published in 2012 by Encounter Books.

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