Many Americans are just starting to learn about the potential uses of ethanol. My buddy Zeke was an expert years ago. He went to college in the heartland, where ethanol was sold at the local liquor store as grain alcohol.
It was meant to be used in mixed drinks, but one night Zeke and his pals decided to do shots. When they woke up the next morning, the apartment was destroyed. There were even some bricks missing on the outside walls. It seemed one of the lads had the bright idea that a barbell could be employed as a battering ram.
So that’s one use for ethanol. Unwise, perhaps, but certainly efficient. The entire crew had gotten staggeringly drunk for less than 10 bucks.
As for the current proposal to end the energy crunch by running cars on corn liquor, that’s not going to work. At least not according to Kenneth S. Deffeyes. Deffeyes has slightly better academic credentials than Zeke. He is a professor emeritus of geology at Princeton and, perhaps more important, is the son of a man who worked the oil wells.
Deffeyes is the leading proponent of the idea of “peak oil.” This is the theory that the world’s oil production has to reach a peak at a certain point and then decline. In his book “Hubbert’s Peak,” Deffeyes tells the story of M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist who in 1956 predicted that American oil production would peak around 1970. Hubbert was called a fool, but sure enough, production peaked right on schedule.
Deffeyes has applied Hubbert’s formulas to world oil production and come up with a projected peak. When I last spoke to him in May 2005, Deffeyes told me he expected world production to peak around Thanksgiving of last year.
When I called him the other day, Deffeyes admitted he had gotten that prediction wrong – by three weeks.
“The peak probably was Dec. 16 instead of Thanksgiving,” he said. “I’m no longer a prophet but a historian.”
He got a laugh at the Bush administration’s recent pronouncement that we can expect three more years of high oil prices.
“I’m predicting 300 more years of high oil prices,” he said.
It’s not just the supply problem. There’s also the demand problem. India and China will be using ever more oil as they grow. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is offering us little more than shots of corn liquor. The agribusiness lobby and corn-state politicians love the idea that ethanol can replace oil. Deffeyes argues that ethanol will produce only 90 percent of the energy used to produce it. But if ethanol can’t produce much energy, it sure can produce lots of votes. That’s why politicians of both parties keep pushing it.
“They’re terrible,” Deffeyes said. “But who wants to get up and promise you blood, sweat and tears?”
Certainly not the Republicans. Deffeyes is amused by President Bush’s call for the U.S. to end its “addiction to oil” at the same time he calls for building new refineries.
“If total world oil supply is going to go down, we don’t need new refineries,” he said.
Deffeyes supports Bush’s plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but points out that refuge production will amount to “a little, teeny blip in the production curve.”
“You have to remember that when Prudhoe Bay in Alaska came on line in 1976 it represented the biggest find of all time, yet it did not carry us back to the 1970 production level,” he said. “And in the wildest dreams, ANWR isn’t half of Prudhoe Bay.”
Even if we drill like crazy, America will never again produce significantly more oil than it does today, Deffeyes said. Therefore we need to think about realistic alternatives. Deffeyes proposes wind power, nuclear power and the use of clean coal technologies. He also suggests we abandon our gas guzzlers in favor of the high-efficiency diesels that permit Europeans to travel in comfort while still getting 35 miles per gallon.
But if the Republicans are bad, the Democrats are worse. No one symbolizes that better than U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Recently, Menendez was proposing to suspend the federal gas tax so American drivers could keep pumping cheap gas. Now, Menendez wants to “help America kick its oil addiction.” But how will we ever kick our oil addiction if Americans can keep buying cheap gas for SUVs like the Ford Explorer in which Menendez left a recent news conference on energy? An enterprising reporter for the Washington Post stood outside that news conference and watched as pols of both parties got into massive SUVs.
None of these guys has the courage to tell the American public its gas guzzlers are obsolete. But Zeke isn’t afraid. On the back window of his car, he has inscribed the message “SUVs R 4 fools.”
“SUV drivers give me the finger and start yelling,” Zeke said. “If there’s a gas station nearby, I just point at the prices on the sign.”
That just makes the fool in question even angrier. The truth hurts – but Zeke shouldn’t be the only one saying it.
Paul Mulshine is a columnist for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.