Oil—Do We Have Any Alternatives?
OIL. When it is spilled, it coats the sea with a slick black film that smothers and kills much of what it touches. When it is burned, it unleashes fumes that sicken lungs, wither trees, and even help to give our planet a “fever” called the greenhouse effect. Yet, today’s world is deeply dependent on it. We use so much oil, in fact, that some people think we may run out of it before we finish poisoning ourselves with it.
In view of all the problems oil causes, it is no wonder that more people today are asking if we have any choice in fuels besides oil. The automobile is an appropriate focus for this question. The fastest-growing guzzler of the world’s limited oil supply, it is also a champion polluter. Cars belch some 400 million tons of carbon into our beleaguered atmosphere every year. But is oil-based gasoline the only way to run a car?
No. There are other fuels. Scientists are still experimenting with solar-powered cars and electric cars. But unless there is some unforeseen breakthrough, we will not see such vehicles replacing gasoline-powered ones in the near future.
Hydrogen may be a promising auto fuel. Not only would hydrogen pollute less than gasoline but it would not run out soon. It is the most abundant element in the universe. But for now, a practical hydrogen-burning car is only a possibility for the distant future, when technology may catch up with the idea.
What about the more immediate future? Two types of fuel that are not based on oil are already widely used in cars and trucks: alcohol and natural gas. A pure alcohol called ethanol is distilled from sugarcane. In 1987 ethanol powered over 90 percent of the new cars sold in Brazil, although in recent months that figure has slumped to 69 percent as oil prices have fallen. Ethanol is cleaner than gasoline, and it comes from a replenishable source. We can always grow more sugarcane, or sugar beets, or cassava, or corn, to produce more ethanol.
One problem, though, is the amount of land required to grow ethanol-producing crops. The United States would have to set aside nearly 40 percent of its annual corn harvest to produce enough ethanol to fill just 10 percent of its auto-fuel needs.
Expense is another problem. By one estimate, ethanol-producing crops lose some 30 to 40 percent of their potential energy content while being converted to fuel. With the added expense of the farming and processing, some experts have concluded that it takes more energy to produce ethanol than the ethanol itself provides!
Methanol, an alcohol made from natural gas or coal, is less expensive. While some fuels give only sluggish performance, methanol gives a car more pep. In fact, racing cars often run on methanol because it is less explosive than gasoline. In June 1989, U.S. president George Bush unveiled an alternate fuels proposal calling for 500,000 U.S. cars to be fueled by methanol by 1995. The government claims that its proposal would greatly reduce auto emissions.
But methanol has its own problems. While it gives off less carbon in combustion than petroleum does, it emits another pollutant: formaldehyde, a suspected cancer-causing agent. Also, methanol cars would be harder to start in cold weather.
Commonly used in domestic heating and cooking, natural gas has marked advantages as an automotive fuel. It is a simple compound—mostly methane—and it burns cleanly. It gives off little of the carbon that gasoline does and none of the sooty, particle-laden smoke of diesel fuel. Engines burning such clean fuel need less maintenance. Natural gas is relatively inexpensive, and it is still abundant.
Gas-powered cars are already used in Italy, the Soviet Union, New Zealand, and Canada. But gas is not problem free. To convert a gasoline-burning car into a gas-burning one is expensive. Further, gas (even though compressed) takes up a lot of volume. Several large storage tanks must be installed in the trunk of the car. Even then, the car has a relatively short range and must refuel more frequently.
Refueling brings us to an obstacle common to all alternate fuels. Who would want to buy an alternate-fuel car when it is difficult to find a service station that sells the fuel? On the other hand, why would service stations provide alternate fuels when they have no assurance that people will buy them? So which will come first, the buyers of the fuel or the sellers?
One solution to this dilemma proposes that cars be made to run on two different types of fuel. Already there are cars that run on both natural gas and gasoline, natural gas and diesel, alcohol and gasoline, or varying mixtures of two fuels in one tank. While such dual-fuel cars would be easier to refuel, they might not be as clean-running or as efficient as cars designed to run on a single clean fuel.
A Hidden Oil Reserve
The most immediate way to alleviate our troubles with oil is to use it more efficiently. This would not undo the pollution that oil causes, but it might stave off drastic oil shortages while alternative fuels are developed. One U.S. senator claims that just getting American cars to average 35 miles per gallon [15 km/L] “would save 660,000 barrels of oil a day by the year 2000. In 30 years, the same time as the expected life of an oil field, that would amount to about 7.8 thousand million barrels. That is far more than the oil industry is likely to find in Alaska.”—The New York Times, April 15, 1989.
Yet, in the United States, where efficiency could make the biggest difference, it is most undervalued. U.S. cars travel almost as much as all the other cars of the world combined. Thus, Americans in particular have a vast, untapped oil reserve right under their very noses—or, rather, under the hoods of cars and trucks—in the inefficient gas-guzzling engines lurking there.
Is it possible to improve the mileage of cars? Yes. In fact, 35 miles per gallon [15 km/L] is already fairly common. Cars were made more efficient out of necessity when oil prices rose drastically in the 1970’s. Since then, auto manufacturers have developed cars that get vastly better mileage by using new engine designs and auto bodies made of lighter and stronger materials, and in more aerodynamic shapes. Volvo has developed a car that gets 71 miles per gallon [30 km/L]. Volkswagen has built a car that gets 85 miles per gallon [36 km/L]. Renault has a prototype that gets 124 miles per gallon [52 km/L]!
There is a catch, though. You cannot buy any of these cars; they are not being manufactured. Automakers feel that since the price of oil dropped in 1986, car buyers now are less concerned about fuel efficiency. Peugeot is holding its high-mileage car—73 miles per gallon [31 km/L]—in reserve until oil prices rise, calling it a crisis car.
World Watch magazine notes that most U.S. auto manufacturers don’t even have “crisis cars” waiting in the wings and are not investing in new fuel-saving technologies. Why? World Watch answers: “The consensus seems to be that part of the problem is a preoccupation with quarterly profits and stock prices at the expense of new product development.” Making money now, in other words, matters more than averting a crisis later.
But self-interest is not unique to large corporations. Auto manufacturers make it a point to know what their customers want. They know full well that at present there are no easy answers to mankind’s overdependence on oil. All the alternatives involve trade-offs. A car that does not pollute the air or deplete oil reserves may not have the power, pep, or luxury of the old gas-guzzler, and the fuel may not be as convenient to buy.
What do you think? Are people willing to make this kind of sacrifice in order to stave off a crisis that might not break in its full fury until their children or their children’s children are driving cars? Man’s treatment of this earth, his progeny’s inheritance, seems to trumpet the implicit answer: “Who cares?”
In the final analysis, the problem of meeting our needs for fuel without ruining the planet involves more than finding alternatives to oil. We need alternative attitudes, alternatives to greed and shortsightedness. Man’s inept mismanagement of the planet’s resources, including its fuels, adds to the pile of evidence proving what the Bible long ago said—that man has neither the right nor the ability to govern himself.—Jeremiah 10:23.
But for students of the Bible, the story does not end there. The Bible assures us that in the near future, our Creator will take a more active hand in the management of human society. No doubt he will teach us how to use the planet’s wealth of resources without fouling our own nest. For a future with hope, that is more than the best alternative. It is the only alternative.—Isaiah 11:6-9.
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We need alternatives to greed and shortsightedness