Furthermore, shifting to natural gas as a critical transportation resource is unwise for fundamental logistical reasons. The United States is currently using natural gas at a rate of 27 trillion cubic feet per year. The total known reserves of natural gas in all of North America are 274 trillion cubic feet. And while new reserves are always being discovered, launching a heroic effort to shift our transportation system to critical dependence upon a fuel whose known domestic reserves amount to little more than ten years’ supply is simply not prudent.
Finally, compressed natural gas is an inferior technology for vehicle fuel. This is so because it is a gas, not a liquid, and so must be stored in heavy high-pressure tanks. A standard steel K-bottle compressed gas cylinder, which weighs about 133 lbs, can only store enough natural gas to match the energy content of two gallons of gasoline. So CNG cars are either limited to short range, or must carry massive tank systems that increase their cost and reduce their mileage. Lighter graphite composite tanks are possible, but these are very expensive and unsafe in the event of a crash, as they are susceptible to breakage followed by gas release and explosion.
So the Pickens plan, as written, won’t work. Fortunately, however, there is a way to modify it so that it can. The key is for Congress to pass a bill, such as the current Open Fuel Standards Act (S.3303, HR.6559) requiring that all new cars sold in the U.S. be fully flex-fueled — that is, capable of running equally well on gasoline, ethanol, and methanol. Such technology is currently available and only adds about $100 to the cost of a car (in contrast to CNG capability, which adds about $2,000). The reason why establishing a full flex-fuel standard is the answer is that methanol — a very safe and practical liquid vehicle fuel — can be made from a vast array of feedstocks, including not only natural gas, but also coal, recycled urban trash, and any kind of biomass without exception.
So if a bold wind or nuclear energy initiative can in fact free up enough natural gas to make a difference to the vehicle fuel market, flex-fuel cars can readily make use of it in a much safer and more practical form as methanol. But if not, then we — and the rest of the world (since an American flex-fuel requirement would effectively make flex-fuel the international standard, as all foreign car makers would need to switch their lines over to conform to it) — would also be able to make our fuel from a wide array of alternative resources. Indeed, we have enough known coal reserves for hundreds of years’ worth of supply, and enough crop residues available globally that, converted into methanol, could replace all the oil of OPEC. The key is not to pick one particular fuel resource, but to open the fuel market to all comers. Setting a flex-fuel vehicle standard is the quickest and most efficient way to achieve that goal.
By creating such a true free open-source fuel market, we can make it possible for every nation to contribute to the world’s fuel supply, breaking the monopoly power of the oil cartel, everywhere and forever.