Commentary

Blowing Smoke On Gas Savings?

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on April 3, 2005.
In the late 1950s, some people really believed Detroit and Big Oil had suppressed a remarkable invention — a tablet you could drop in you car’s gas tank that would let it run on water. Much to my surprise, a claim only slightly less outlandish has suddenly taken the fancy of neoconservative writers — the same fellows who recently believed castor beans and peanut mold might be fearsome weapons of mass destruction.

The new version of turning water into gasoline first appeared in Newsweek. Fareed Zakaria wrote, “Tomorrow, President Bush could make the following speech: ‘… It is now possible to build cars that are powered by a combination of electricity and alcohol-based fuels, with petroleum as only one element among many. My administration is going to put in place a series of policies that will ensure that in four years, the average new American car will get 300 miles per gallon of petroleum. And I fully expect in this period to see cars in the United States that get 500 miles per gallon.’ ”

The president could make such a speech, but only if he were indifferent about being hauled off in a straitjacket. Yet the “geo-green” apostle of the >New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman, echoed similar political advice: “Most of all — it’s smart politics…. Imagine if George Bush declared that he was getting rid of his limousine for an armor-plated Ford Escape hybrid, adopting a geo-green strategy and building an alliance of neocons, evangelicals and greens to sustain it. His popularity at home — and abroad — would soar.”

What is this “alliance of neocons, evangelicals and greens,” and what do they really want?

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot has repeated the Zakaria fantasy: “Hybrid electric cars such as the Toyota Prius, which run on both electric motors and gas engines, already get more than 50 miles per gallon (mpg). Coming soon are hybrids that can be plugged into a 120-volt outlet to recharge…. Add in ‘flexible fuel’ options that already allow many cars to run on a combination of petroleum and fuels like ethanol (derived from corn) and methanol (from natural gas or coal), and you could build vehicles that could get — drum roll, please — 500 mpg. That’s not science fiction; that’s achievable now.”

Mr. Boot and Mr. Zakaria clearly lifted this 500 mpg line from the same source. Mr. Boot says it came from “Set America Free, a group set up by R. James Woolsey, Frank Gaffney and other national security hawks.” This group was “organized by the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS).”

Mr. Zakaria names neither group, but instead credits Gal Luft, “a tireless and independent advocate of energy security.” Mr. Luft is co-director of IAGS and specializes in “strategy, geopolitics, terrorism, Middle East and energy security.” He is also a former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces.

The other key “member” of the IAGS group Set America Free is called the Apollo Alliance. It was founded by Illinois Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, the heads of the United Steel Workers Union and the Sierra Club, and a few left-fringe organizations like the Institute for America’s Future. This Apollo Alliance gets generous support from MoveOn.org and the Tides Foundation — both heavily funded by Bush-hater George Soros — and Ted Turner’s “United Nations Better World Fund.”

The five-page IAGS “Set America Free” memo is an undocumented list of grandiose assertions based on bad science and worse economics. The bad science begins by treating electricity and ethanol as if they were energy sources producible without any energy use. To arrive at a figure like 500 mpg, just fill your tank with a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline — but then count only that 15 percent against “miles per gallon.”

Mr. Zakaria’s comment about miles per gallon “of petroleum” hints at the key assumption that new cars would use 85 percent alcohol, so for every gallon of petroleum they would need about 6 more gallons of ethanol. You can’t produce corn for fuel without farm machinery and petrochemicals, and you can’t move it to a plant and process it into alcohol without burning more fuel. We have thousands of heavily subsidized “flexible fuel” vehicles on the road, but nearly all choose 10 percent ethanol, not 85 percent.

It is bad science to pretend petroleum imports are mainly used in passenger cars, much less in vehicles the size of a Toyota Prius. Transportation accounts for 67 percent of petroleum use. The rest goes into things like plastics, polyester, pesticides and fertilizer, fueling farm machinery and heating some homes. Even within that 67 percent of a barrel of oil devoted to transportation, 41 percent is not used in cars and light trucks but in heavy trucks, airplanes, ships, buses and trains. So cars and light trucks combined (many essential for business) account for about 59 percent of the 67 percent of each barrel of oil used for transportation — only 40 percent of total petroleum consumption.

Consumer Reports finds the Prius gets 44 mpg, not 50. Meanwhile, the next wave of hybrids are much larger and have much larger engines. Powerful hybrids from Honda and Lexus will not be nearly as fuel-frugal as a four-cylinder Volkswagen Passat. The hybrid Chevy Silverado will be lucky to average 18 mpg. So, to apply even a 50 mpg estimate to the entire new American vehicle fleet is not a matter of proven technology, as claimed, but of proven untruth. The most basic blunder of this whole charade is the supposition that reaching some incredibly high mileage goal for new American cars would make a significant dent in world oil demand (and injure Mideast producers, the real objective).

Recall Mr. Zakaria’s comment “that in four years, the average new American car will get 300 miles per gallon” (of petroleum). What happens to the average mileage of new American cars will matter very little if most people stick with their superior old cars, or buy powerful new cars from Germany and Japan. In any event, the number of new cars is always minuscule compared with the stock of existing cars. And it would become downright trivial if new U.S. cars had to be tiny and underpowered enough to meet an arbitrary mileage goal.

We are asked to imagine a suspicious alliance of neocons, evangelicals and greens dedicated to taxing the stuffing out of U.S. energy, to keep oil cheaper for China and others, and to shove Americans into imaginary vehicles that get 500 mpg (of petroleum). Why? “Because it’s good politics.” All this requires far more imagination than most reasonably sane people are likely able to muster.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist.