A study at Princeton University estimates the U.S. spent $6.8 trillion dollars from 1976 to 2007—three percent of its total GDP—defending oil shipments in the Persian Gulf. If the U.S. government hadn’t spent that money defending Middle Eastern seaways and instead invested far less than the average $225 billion per year at home, we would be oil independent.
For years, the American people have been clamoring to end oil dependence on unstable parts of the world, with limited success. In 2008, oil magnate T. Boone Pickens struck a chord with the country when he presented The Pickens Plan that called for investing in domestic renewable resources and switching from oil to natural gas as a transportation fuel. Then the BP Oil spill in the Gulf visibly pushed our environment to its limits, but the U.S. government didn’t pass a single law in response to the disaster. While we have reduced imported oil by 15 percent over the last two years, the United States still imported an average 7.4 million barrels of crude oil per day during the first nine months of 2014—at a cost of more than $240 billion.
Despite President Bush’s call for an end to our oil addiction, we seem to always be making progress but never reaching our goal. We now have stated goals to steadily increase U.S. fuel economy standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 to keep pace with the goals set in Europe, China, and other countries. We have also supported significant increases in domestic oil drilling.
Domestic drilling and fuel standards are not enough—we need fuel choice. Tweet This Quote
Today, we have more oil drilling in the United States than we have had since the TV show Dallas went off the air in 1991. As a result, net imports of crude oil are down 7 percent compared to 1993 levels. However, with oil prices still over $75/barrel, the petroleum trade deficit—the actual cost of imported oil—has more than tripled over that time period.
The current increase in fuel economy standards will get us part way there. The predicted increase in oil drilling in the U.S. and Canada will get us even closer. But no matter how we slice the data, we will still depend on imported oil. Domestic drilling and fuel standards are not enough—we need fuel choice.
The sad truth is that the technologies necessary to achieve true fuel choice have been around for 20 years, but we seem incapable of deploying them at scale. Six years after the Pickens Plan, our pathway to a natural gas trucking fleet still seems ten years away. Figuring out how to achieve this represents the largest wealth creation opportunity of our time.
Generally, these technologies fall into two categories: alternative fuels and efficiency technologies. Alternative fuels make fuel choice possible with flex-fuel technologies. An example today can be seen with the heavy truck-maker Peterbilt. The company is already building about 33 percent of its new trucks equipped to run on natural gas.
For existing trucks, duel-fuel upgrades replace about 55 percent of diesel fuel consumption with lower-cost domestic natural gas. The cost of these upgrades is less than $30,000, generating a payback in about 18 months. More than 280,000 trucks could be retrofitted by 2018—but probably won’t be. Together, both approaches (retrofitting and building new trucks) would save about 14 billion gallons of diesel fuel.
Other alternative fuels can also be scaled up profitably. The reason: we have invested 30 years of research to develop these alternative fuels, and conventional fuels like diesel are still above $3.40 per gallon. Fuel choices like methanol, hydrogen, electricity, and other renewable fuels are cheaper than this level. However, the Government has not systematically put a plan in place to give American’s access to these fuels at local refueling stations. In fact, the Government regulations in place today make it difficult to add these fuel choices.
It is time to stop waging war in the Middle East and start the war against vehicle inefficiency. Tweet This Quote
Just like with solar and wind energy, getting the existing alternative fuels to scale requires mandates like the U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard, which requires gas stations to have a particular percentage of their fuels to be renewable. Today, that standard needs to be updated to an open fuels standard to include non-renewable fuels like natural gas and hydrogen. Increasing these fuels faster is not only possible, but also necessary to meet our goals to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil by 2025.
In addition to alternative fuels, vehicle efficiency technologies offer another off-ramp towards oil independence. With only one out of every seven gallons of gas being used to move the car forward, it is time to stop waging war in the Middle East and start the war against vehicle inefficiency.
Fuel efficiency and enhancement technologies, including improved engine design and aerodynamics for heavy trucks, can push us the extra mile. One exciting fuel enhancement technology is NanoVit. The nano particulate (i.e. very small), amorphous, formless powder interfaces between small moving surfaces to provide protection against extreme pressure, thereby reducing friction, decreasing wear, and increasing the life of components. Combustion engines that use this type of fuel enhancement could save up to 29 percent of the fuel burned.
Another way to make vehicles more efficient is as simple as making them lighter. Following the oil-crisis in the 1970’s, average fuel efficiencies more than doubled. However, that increase has been nearly offset now that more people drive heavier cars like SUV’s. Carbon fiber offers one means of increasing fuel efficiency through a 50 to 70 percent weight reduction compared to existing car materials.
The technologies to conserve and displace oil exist, yet not enough people are willing to invest upfront to eliminate oil Tweet This Quote
BMW has been a trailblazer in commercializing carbon fiber. In 2013, it built a $100 million manufacturing facility outside of Spokane, WA and is now in the process of tripling the plant’s production. BMW aims to make carbon fiber as cheap as aluminum by reducing the price by a factor of ten. Through the use of carbon fiber, BMW’s sleek i3 electric car weighs 20 percent less than the Nissan Leaf allowing it to accelerate from zero to 60 up to four seconds faster than the Leaf.
The technologies to conserve and displace oil exist, yet not enough people are willing to invest upfront to eliminate oil—even if the savings pay off the upfront investment within a few years. It is time to use financial innovation to cost-effectively deploy the technological innovations we already paid to discover.
With a little courage, imagine what we could have done with the $6.8 trillion we spent in the Persian Gulf because of our oil dependence. Now that we have cost-effective alternatives, there is no reason why we have to make that mistake again. When we look back from 2045, we should see the fuel-choice economy that Americans build—not more warships and tankers in the Middle East.