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.

Op Edsop-edOpinion

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

The J Church train could begin running again later this month on at least part of its surface route. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
First Muni trains will return to service Dec. 19

Three additional bus routes coming back online in January

Smoking cannabis. (Shutterstock)
Supes ban tobacco smoking in apartments but exempt cannabis

San Francisco banned smoking and vaping of tobacco in apartments Tuesday night,… Continue reading

Dr. Grant Colfax and Mayor London Breed said new restrictions could come this week due to rising COVID-19 cases.<ins> (Examiner screenshot)</ins>
Breed: ‘More restrictive action’ needed to slow spread of COVID-19

San Francisco officials said Tuesday tougher restrictions will soon be imposed to… Continue reading

Many landlords fought the proposal requiring them to register properties, calling it an invasion of privacy. 
Kevin N. Hume/
S.F. Examiner
Housing inventory wins unanimous approval from supervisors

Legislation will require landlords to register properties, report vacancies and rents

Harlan Kelly, head of the SFPUC and husband to City Administrator Naomi Kelly (right), faces federal charges for allegedly trading inside information on a city contract in return for a paid family vacation. (Courtesy photo)
Harlan Kelly, head of SFPUC, charged with fraud in widening Nuru scandal

Kelly accused of engaging in corrupt partnership with permit expediter

Most Read