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ZUBRIN: Open standards for auto fuel

Let the market decide - oil, ethanol or methanol

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Ladies and gentlemen of the left and the right: Let's be realistic. There is no chance whatsoever that the U.S. political system will either: A) Pass carbon or gas taxes sufficiently punitive to compel Americans to curtail their driving substantially, or B) Support rapid expansion of offshore drilling for the foreseeable future.

Therefore, if neither conservation nor production is in the cards, how can we hope to deal with our nation's dangerous and ever-growing dependence on foreign oil?

Here's my answer: We need to cure our cars of their oil addiction. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is not in ourselves, but in our cars; we are made underlings.

Let's stop the guilt-ridden breast-beating and place the blame where it belongs. We are not addicted to oil. Our cars are addicted to oil. They are like a tribe of people who, because of some unfortunate flaw, can only eat one kind of food, say herring. Thus, if the herring merchants combine to rig up the price of their product to $100 per pound, the tribesmen have no choice but to submit. They would be far better off if they could become omnivores, capable of eating steak, ice cream, corn, eggs, apples, etc., as the power to use such alternatives would make them immune from herring-cartel extortion.

Our four-wheeled servants have the same problem; they can only drink one kind of fuel. Unfortunately, because we are the ones who must foot the bill for their singular habit, their problem is our problem. We need to cure them.

Fortunately, such a cure is at hand. The technology exists to make cars that are fully flex-fueled, able to run equally well on gasoline, ethanol or methanol, in any combination. If installed at the time of manufacture, the inclusion of this feature adds only about $100 to the cost of a typical car. The benefits of making such a childhood immunization against oil addiction a standard requirement for all new autos sold in the U.S. would be profound.

Were it the rule that only oil-addiction-immunized cars could enter the U.S. market, foreign carmakers would waste no time in switching over their entire lines to flex fuel. Thus, not only Japanese cars sold in America, but also those sold in Japan and everywhere else would be omnivores, as would nearly all other cars sold in any serious way internationally. Within a very few years, there would be tens of millions of cars in the U.S. endowed with the capacity for fuel choice, and hundreds of millions more internationally. Under those conditions, gasoline would be forced to compete at the pump against both methanol and ethanol made from any number of potential sources all over the world. This would put a permanent competitive constraint against future rises in the price of oil. Such a constraint is vitally needed, as without it, current $75-per-barrel recession oil prices could easily explode under conditions of economic recovery to levels of $150 per barrel or more, thereby aborting the recovery itself.

While ethanol can make a significant contribution - it has replaced 7 percent of the gasoline used in the U.S. and more than 50 percent in Brazil - the real key here is compatibility with methanol, which can be made in limitless quantities from anything that either is or once was a plant, including coal, natural gas, recycled urban trash or any kind of biomass, without exception. Its current price on the international market is $1 per gallon, equivalent in energy terms to gasoline at $1.90 per gallon - without any subsidy. If we cure our cars so they can drink this fuel, we will protect ourselves from extortion by the oil cartel, forever.

A bill has been introduced in Congress to do exactly that. Known as the Open Fuel Standards (OFS) Act, it has truly bipartisan support, with its Senate version (S.B. 835) sponsors including such liberals as Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat; moderates such as Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican; and conservatives such as Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, and Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican. Similarly, its House version (H.R. 1476) supporters run the political spectrum from Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, to Rep. Bob Inglis, South Carolina Republican. Under the bill's provision, by 2012, 50 percent of all new cars sold in the U.S. will need to be fully flex-fueled, with the number rising to 80 percent by 2015.

With a stroke of a pen, Congress can break the power of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to tax the world. The OFS bill will not cost the Treasury a dime, and it will protect the nation from hundreds of billions of dollars of potential losses because of future petroleum price increases. Those reluctant to support it need to answer the question: In whose interest is it that Americans lack fuel choice? In whose interest is it that our cars remain addicted to oil?

Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and the author of "Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil" (Prometheus Books, 2007).

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