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By Robert Rapier on Feb 17, 2008 with no responses

Critiquing Robert Zubrin on Energy

A couple of weeks ago, I said that I would be working on several posts. One of them, a book review for Robert Bryce’s new book, Gusher of Lies, is finished but I won’t post it until the book is officially released on March 10th. Beyond that, I was going to write a post on refinery economics, which I have yet to do, and a post critiquing Robert Zubrin. So here’s the post on Zubrin.

I haven’t read Zubrin’s energy book – Energy Victory- so this critique is based mainly on a very long article that he wrote about his ideas. A bit of trivia that I have mentioned before, many may know that Zubrin is a passionate advocate for Mars exploration, and has come up with some novel ideas for speeding up progress there. I am also a Mars buff, and Zubrin and I have corresponded over the types of fuels that could be synthesized from native Martian materials, because at that time I was doing some related work. But that is history, so let the critique (debunking?) commence.

I have been asked about the feasibility of what Zubrin is proposing. Zubrin gets some credit in my book for understanding the flaws in the hydrogen economy. So, what does he propose instead, and does it have similar flaws?

There is a very extensive article, based on his book, at The New Atlantis:

Achieving Energy Victory

Let’s cover some of the key points:

The world economy currently runs on oil, a resource controlled by our enemies. This threatens to leave us prostrate. It must change—and it can change, quickly.

Saudi Arabia is the primary global financier of the Islamist terror cult. Until the Saudis started racking up billions in inflated oil revenues in the 1970s, the Wahhabi movement was regarded by Muslims the world over as little more than primitive insanity. Without rivers of treasure to feed its roots, this horrific movement could neither grow nor thrive.

This is just the sort of thing Robert Bryce tackles in his newest book. He argues that almost all of the claims in the previous paragraphs are myths. The one sentence there that I think all three Robert’s – Zubrin, Bryce, and myself would agree on is that the world economy runs on oil.

Much of the first section of the essay is a rant aimed at OPEC, Saudi Arabia, and Islam. I won’t address that, other than to say that a good portion of it uses unfortunate stereotypes, and it contains a number of inaccuracies. Zubrin also offers opinions on many issues that he would have a hard time supporting if pressed. But there is one comment that I want to address before I get to his solutions section:

Fortunately, however, the claim that the world is running out of oil has no foundation whatsoever. Such claims have been made repeatedly in the past, and all have proven false. For example, as Learsy notes in Over a Barrel……

First of all, instant credibility point deduction for citing Learsy. The guy is a loon, and I have mentioned him just briefly here once before. Furthermore, the claim that “the world is running out of oil” is a strawman. Everyone knows – right down to your most hard core doomer, that there is an enormous quantity of oil left. The problem is getting it out quickly enough to meet demand – either because supply isn’t growing as quickly as is demand, or supply is actually falling due to an eventual peak in world oil production. Zubrin does a great job of demolishing this strawman, but let’s not pretend it was anything else.

Now, on to the main course. Zubrin first tackles the topics of conservation and CAFE standards:

When the subject of fighting OPEC comes up, the foremost proposal generally advanced is conservation. Since OPEC is taxing us by selling us oil, the thinking goes, we should simply use less. It sounds very sensible—but it is completely unworkable. It needs to be discredited because it proposes a strategy that guarantees defeat.

There are essentially just three ways to convince people to conserve: economic incentives, moral persuasion, or governmental action. None will succeed in this instance.

The most powerful persuader of the three is economics. Yet that is impractical here, because the objective is to reduce OPEC’s profits. If the oil price is allowed to soar high enough to induce conservation, OPEC wins big.

And if you think that was a flippant dismissal on the economics issue, try this one:

That leaves the possibility of government mandates. These can certainly have some effect within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States—but the demand for oil is a global issue. No practicable U.S. government conservation initiative could lead to domestic consumption reductions large enough to influence the global oil price.

One wonders then why countries with high gas taxes have much lower per capita energy consumption than the U.S. What Zubrin wants is an easy solution that requires no sacrifice, and yet reduces our dependence on oil. That would be great, and after dismissing CAFE (which I actually have a problem with as well, but for different reasons) he outlines his solutions. After mentioning America’s reserves of coal and natural gas, as well as our potential for producing biomass, he writes:

None of these fuels is on an equal footing with oil because none of them is currently used to produce liquid fuel for transportation. But what if we could convert them into usable liquid fuel?

In point of fact, we can. No new Manhattan Project will be required to discover how. The chemical knowledge required to do it is quite well established, being hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years old. All we need to do is make alcohol.

At that point, he steps out onto shaky economic ground:

That said, the food crops used as a basis for ethanol production through this technique have significant commercial value, and that puts a floor under the production cost of fermentation-based ethanol. For sugar, that cost is about $1 per gallon, while for corn it is around $1.50 per gallon (without any subsidy). Ethanol has about two-thirds the energy value per gallon as gasoline, so these prices correspond to gasoline sold at $1.50 and $2.25 per gallon, respectively (before taxes—most gasoline sold in the United States is taxed about $0.50 per gallon). These gasoline prices, in turn, correspond to oil priced at $36 and $54 per barrel. So long as oil is pegged above this level (as it currently is), crop-fermentation ethanol can beat the price of gasoline.

That paragraph is full of problems. First, I fail to see his point about a floor under production costs for ethanol. Right now, that floor for corn is up around the $2/gal mark, which means the cost is already above his “floor.” Second, he doesn’t speak at all to the energy inputs (which mean that corn ethanol is also very sensitive to fossil fuel prices) nor does he attempt to quantify how much oil this would actually displace. He might find that some of the other options he so casually dismissed above have much greater potential for reducing our oil usage than does this one. At least he does admit that cellulosic ethanol is not there yet, although he classifies the chance of success as “highly probable.”

But from there, he does move into somewhat more fertile ground:

Fortunately, however, there are simpler techniques to make usable alcohol fuel out of biomass, and much else. This brings us to methanol, the simplest liquid fuel molecule known to chemistry. Commonly called “wood alcohol” because it can be readily produced from wood, it can also be manufactured out of virtually any kind of organic material, including every kind of biomass (whether edible or not), as well as coal, natural gas, human and animal metabolic wastes, and municipal trash. Since its potential sources are so vast, varied, and cheap, methanol promises to be an inexpensive fuel. In fact, it already is: during the summer of 2007, the wholesale price of methanol, manufactured and sold without a subsidy, was $0.93 per gallon. Methanol has about 54 percent the energy density of gasoline, so this price is the equivalent of gasoline selling for $1.70 per gallon (before taxes).

One thing to note is that the price he quotes for methanol is based on methanol produced from natural gas – not from biomass. His quote above is like suggesting that cellulosic ethanol promises to be competitive, and then quoting corn ethanol production costs for support. I don’t know the economics of the production of methanol from wood (although they are higher than methanol from natural gas), but it would be interesting to look into them. A quick search came up with a paper presented at an alternative energy conference in 1985. On comparing methanol from wood to ethanol from corn, the author said that no plants to produce methanol from wood have been built. I don’t know if that is still the case.

However, I will say that I agree with him in general on his methanol points. Methanol is relatively cheap and easy to produce, and can be produced from a wide variety of starting materials. Most of those starting materials don’t pose a food versus fuel debate.

Zubrin starts the last section by going into some history of methanol-fueled vehicles. He then makes the case for flex fuel vehicles (FFVs) that can run on a methanol blend. He wrote:

The cars worked well. As the CEC’s Tom MacDonald reported in a summary paper on the program published in 2000, the over 14,000 methanol/gasoline FFVs demonstrated “seamless vehicle operation on methanol, gasoline, and all combination of these fuels.” He also noted that FFV engines were as durable as standard gas engines and that there were incremental improvements in emissions fuel efficiency.

However, he then notes that interest in methanol FFVs declined:

But beyond the CEC’s successful pilot program, there has been very little interest in FFVs. The farm lobby has pushed for them as a means to expand ethanol sales, which is why, for the past decade or so, FFVs have been designed primarily for ethanol use. All told, some six million FFVs have been produced to date in America—a number that sounds impressive, and that indeed is quintuple the number of gas/electric hybrid cars in the United States today, but is still dwarfed by the total U.S. fleet of about 230 million cars now on the road.

Unless an ethanol FFV can also burn methanol, it seems like Zubrin’s first challenge is getting some interest in building the vehicles. As he notes, we make fairly cheap methanol today, albeit out of natural gas. I don’t know if methanol can be added in small quantities to your typical car, but if so then Zubrin can skip the FFV challenge and go straight to getting it into the fuel supply.

Zubrin closes with a call for action:

In a game of chess, the struggle ends not with the taking of the enemy king, but with his entrapment. If we could engineer a liberation from oil, the enemy would be rendered helpless, and one way or another, the oil-for-terror game will be finished.

Call it checkmate. Call it victory.

It might be fun to watch him and Bryce debate that “oil-for-terror” angle.

Overall, Zubrin is not completely in left field. He strays out there now and then, but his methanol argument is OK. I don’t consider him at all a crackpot (although that Learsy reference raised one eyebrow). What I don’t know – and have never attempted to determine – is how much methanol we could realistically produce from sustainable biomass. If the answer to that comes in too low, it’s really a moot argument. In that case we are again left with methanol potentially contributing as one of a wide variety of solutions – none of which can shoulder the majority of the load. This is actually what I think we would find with methanol – that it could not displace substantial amounts of oil. But then again, that’s just a hunch.