ZUBRIN: Don’t bet America’s future on Saudi stability

Flex fuel can free us from the oil stranglehold

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Would you bet your life on the stability of Saudi Arabia? No? Then how about the American economy? As chaos spreads through the Arab world, these are the questions every U.S. policymaker needs to confront.

The world is in deep recession. Yet as a result of the systematic constriction of oil production by the Saudi-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil cartel, petroleum prices stand at more than $90 per barrel. That is a fourfold increase since 2003, eightfold since 1999 and thirtyfold since 1972. At $90 a barrel, Americans this year will pay $720 billion for oil. This is an increase of more than $500 billion over what we paid in 2003, equal in economic burden to a 20 percent increase in income taxes, except that instead of the cash going to Uncle Sam, it will go to Uncle Saud and his lesser brethren.

The Saudis, however, are said to be our “friends.”

With “friends” like these, who needs enemies? Well, we may not need them, but we’ve got them. And as current events in Egypt should make clear, there is every chance that someday - perhaps soon - we could wake up and find that the world’s oil is under new management, even less concerned with our well-being than the gang in charge today.

The Saudi monarchs enjoy looting Western industrial society. There are many among their subjects who would prefer to destroy it. What happens if they take over?

This is a fundamental threat to America, the world economy and the entire modern way of life. We need to take action to protect ourselves from it now, before it is too late.

Our potentially ruinous vulnerability arises from the fact that our vehicles all depend upon oil, a fuel whose price and availability depend critically upon the whims and actions of the various factions in the Middle Eastern madhouse. The only way to remove this vulnerability is to have cars that do not depend exclusively on this fuel.

Fortunately, the technology to solve this problem is available. Flex-fuel vehicles can be made, at an incremental cost of only about $100 per car, that can run equally well on gasoline, ethanol or methanol, in any combination, thereby giving the consumer complete fuel choice.

Ethanol already has replaced 7 percent of our gasoline, and having a flex-fuel auto fleet would enable it to do more. However, the real key here is the ability to use methanol, which can be made in nearly unlimited quantities from natural gas, coal, biomass or recycled urban trash - resources in plentiful supply both here and worldwide. Methanol can be produced for as little as 50 cents per gallon, and its current global spot price is $1.28 per gallon without any subsidy, equivalent in energy terms to gasoline at $2.33 per gallon.

Were Congress to pass a law requiring that all new cars sold in the United States be fully flex-fueled, that would change not merely the American auto fleet, but the global auto fleet, as foreign carmakers would be compelled to switch over their lines to meet the standard. Gasoline then would be forced to compete at the pump against both ethanol and methanol made from any number of possible sources all over the world, thereby putting a permanent competitive constraint on the price of petroleum at about the $50-per-barrel level. This would protect us from both the greed of our “friends” and the malice of our enemies.

In the last Congress, a bipartisan bill that incorporated such a provision, known as the Open Fuel Standards Act, was introduced into both the House and the Senate. As a critical national security measure, it needs to be introduced again and this time brought to a vote and passed.

The time to fix the roof is when it is not raining. It’s just drizzling now, but we can see the storm clouds, and time could be running out.

Robert Zubrin is an astronautical engineer, a fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the author of “Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil” (Prometheus Books, 2007).

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