Replacing oil with substitutes won’t put U.S. at disadvantage

“[We] have a choice to make,” President Barack Obama declared last March. “We can remain one of the world’s leading importers of foreign oil,” or we can “become the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy.”

Then he mentioned climate. The policies he’s implementing treat oil as just one target among many — the real enemy is carbon.

He’s got the politics right — for most people, oil is a much bigger worry. But Obama is dodging the inconvenient economic truth: Coal and natural gas — other forms of carbon — are by far the most practical and affordable substitutes for oil.

That’s why the world’s 5 billion poor won’t accept any carbon caps — they desperately need cheap energy and won’t bet their future on economic daydreams. Most Americans won’t either, if the choice is presented to them directly.

We all compete for jobs in the same global economy. Developing countries already emit more than half the greenhouse gas. They represent 80 percent of the world’s population. And their economies and emissions are growing much faster than ours.

The alternative is to go after oil directly — with a practical mix of cheap, conventional fuels that will also curb carbon. Oil’s share of the U.S. energy market peaked just shy of 50 percent in 1977; today, it’s under 40 percent.

Cheap gas and coal grabbed half of what oil lost; cheap uranium took the rest. Oil now depends on transportation for over 70 percent of U.S. demand. Electric power plants, homes and businesses quietly switched from oil to electric or gas-fired alternatives one boiler, furnace or engine at a time, as old hardware wore out and the economic advantages became clear.

A similar blend of coal, natural gas and uranium can squeeze oil off the highway, too. Gas is the only practical alternative to oil for 40-ton trucks and heavy-duty vehicles of any size.

With very modest changes in design, car and truck engines run beautifully on gas, and it’s not hard to get enough gas on board to provide fuel for at least 150 miles. Make natural gas readily available on the highway today, and many trucks and buses — and quite a few cars too — will be tanking up on it within 10 years.

Gas is significantly cheaper than gasoline — and also contains less carbon. Plug-in hybrid-electric engines will let the grid power many miles driven by smaller, light-duty vehicles. Electric miles supplied by our current, cheap mix of coal-gas-uranium electricity will cost significantly less than gasoline miles — and emit less carbon too.

A carbon-centered energy policy will instead use gas to displace coal. That will be quietly welcomed by the autocrats who control 80 percent of the world’s easily accessible oil, and rejected by everyone who feels too poor to replace cheaper energy with more expensive.

To beat oil, we must make beating it our top priority, and start now — with today’s technology. Gas currently powers about 10 million vehicles worldwide, more than half of them in developing economies. We currently produce enough domestic gas to power all our U.S. wheels, and we could quite quickly increase production enough to cover all our wheels and all current uses too.

In the last decade, U.S. companies unlocked gigantic new fields in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Pennsylvania. U.S. shale rock contains enough gas to displace all of our current levels of oil consumption for the next 50 years.

Yes, we must indeed choose. Americans can pay Americans to chase carbon while China and India build power plants and factories, creating real jobs. Or we can attack oil directly with proven, cheaper alternatives, hold our own in a brutally competitive global economy and lower carbon emissions as we do.

Peter Huber is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and author of the new report, Kill Oil with Natural Gas and Electricity.

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