Woolsey On Alternative Fuels
By Bill Moore
James Woolsey is a unique amalgam of conservative Democrat, military 'hawk' (he's in favor of the war with Iraq) and a strong advocate for energy-efficient vehicles and alternative fuels. He proudly acknowledges that even hawks have to have trees to roost in, so he finds no contradiction in his political and his environmental views, which has seen him fostering alliances between "tree huggers," farmers and 'hawks,' like himself in an effort to encourage the switch from imported petroleum to home-grown alternative fuels.
I had the opportunity to meet Woolsey at the 2002 Clean Cities national conference in Oklahoma City. In a brief exchange, he agree to do an interview with EV World. In the light of the imminent threat of war with Iraq and the growing public debate over the role of Middle East oil in this crisis, I thought I'd take him up on his offer. I got him for half an hour between phone calls and a television interview, during which time we talked about what role alternative fuels could play in helping America reduce its dependence on foreign oil sources, especially those from the troubled Middle East.
The first question I asked him was, "Realistically, can the US become energy independent? Is it even desirable?"
"[It's] not really realistic," was his candid response. "What we may be able to do, and not so much as a result of the war itself, but as a result of policies we adapt here, we may be able to become less dependent on imported oil and oil in general for transportation fuel."
He pointed out that as a result of the OPEC oil embargoes of the 1970s, the US generates little of its electric power from oil. Today, virtually all oil we use -- on the order of about 95% -- is in the transportation sector.
"We're down to generating two percent or less of our electricity from oil, so it really is a transportation fuel issue. But we import 55 to 60 percent of our oil and we have a little over three percent of the world's proven reserves and we use about 25 percent of the world's oil."
Keenly aware of the geopolitical ramifications of this imbalance, he also pointed out that the vast bulk of the world's proven reserves -- he estimated two-thirds to three quarters -- are located in the Middle East and a broader region surrounding it that also takes in the Caspian Sea basin.
"Because of the volatility in that part of the world, I think we have a serious problem," he told EV World. Besides the political and religious tensions and hatreds seething in that part of the world, there is the issue of the Saudi government's control over the world's "swing" production capacity of up to 3 million barrels of oil a day. Woolsey contends that they can use this for political leverage and added that there are people who believe that every US recession over the last several decades have resulted from political manipulation of oil prices by the Saudis.
In addition -- and this may account for his advocacy for war with Iraq -- Woolsey contends that after occupying Kuwait in 1991, Saddam Hussein was within 100 miles of Saudi Arabia's main oil fields. Iraq's dictator could have effectively dominated half of the world's proven oil reserves had he chosen to move his forces south.
"So there are a number of vulnerabilties attached to our oil reliance, but we're never going to be completely independent of the outside world. We really should want to be and we don't need to be."
Hydrogen A Distant Promise
Woolsey said that he was glad the Bush Administration has decided to fund research into hydrogen, but he also believes that it is sufficiently far in the future that it can make no meaningful contribution to reducing the nation's reliance on fossil fuels right now.
Referring to Bush's state-of-the-union comment about a child born today someday getting their driver's license in vehicle powered by hydrogen, the former CIA director feels that this is just too distant a goal to practically address our current vulnerability.
"I think that sixteen years is not what our time line ought to be," he stated. "I think we ought to focus on things that will pay off sooner."
He sees three things that should be done immediately. The first is to concentrate on finding and helping develop petroleum resources outside of the Middle East. He cites Russia's vast oil reserves but deteriorating production infrastructure as a prime example of just such a resource. The country needs investments in more pipelines and ports to get its oil into the world market.
His second action item is to develop alternative fuels that can use America's existing production and delivery infrastructure.
Converting Waste to Transportation Fuels
"One reason I have been interested in ethanol is that it takes only a modest modification of vehicles to burn up to 85 percent ethanol in cars that we drive now. Flexible fuel vehicles [FFV], as they are called, can burn up to 85 percent ethanol." He pointed out that the only real difference between a FFV and a conventional car is the plastic used in the fuel line and a minor modification to the computer processor chip that tells the engine what percentage of ethanol-to-gasoline the car is using."
Woolsey acknowledges that there is a very real issue with respect to the amount of energy it takes to make ethanol from corn, which is why he's a strong advocate of using other forms of biomass -- grasses, fast-growing poplars, etc. -- instead of corn.
[Editor's note: The ethanol industry is aware of this issue and has studied it extensively. They contend that using the most energy efficient farming practices and state of the arts ethanol production methods, its possible to produce ethanol from corn at up to a 1:2.4 energy ratio. This means that for every BTU of energy put into the making of ethanol from planting to distilling, 2.4 BTUs can be produced. .]
"What we want to move to, I think, is ethanol made from biomass, essentially agriculture waste, forest waste, kudzu, grasses, brush and so on..." he continued. "The secret here is genetic engineering of the bio-catalysts, the enzymes and yeasts substitutes that can break-down most of what grows into constituent sugars and ferment them into ethanol."
Woolsey thinks that this approach will ultimately reduce the cost of ethanol production and enable it to be introduced in other areas of the world, not just America's mid-section. What he didn't mention was that Brazil is the world leader in ethanol production from sugar cane waste and at one point in the 1980s it powered something like three-quarters of its automobiles with ethanol. Falling oil prices through the 1980s and 1990s hurt the industry.
In addition to ethanol production, he also sees promise in a new technology called Thermo-Depolymerization. In partnership with Conagra Foods, a large food processor in the United States, a small company called Changing World Technologies, has installed a system that will take agriculture waste from a turkey processing plant in Carthage, Missouri and convert it into a short-chain hydrocarbon gas similar to natural gas and a high-grade bio-diesel fuel, among other bi-products.
"This technology is applicable to a wide range of waste from used tires to hog manure," he said.
A third technology makes use of one of America's most abundant fossil fuels, coal. Woolsey explained that a technology developed by the Germans and used extensively during World War Two to produce liquid fuels from gasified coal -- called Fischer-Tropf after its inventors -- also may play an important part in reducing dependence on fossil fuels. He explained during the era of Apartheid, the government of South Africa refined the technology. It enabled them to produce affordable liquid fuels from the country's abundant coal reserves, circumventing UN oil sanctions.
Jim Woolsey explained that an American company in Pennsylvania has developed a way to use Fischer-Tropf to make diesel fuel not from coal but from the mountains of coal slag that results from coal mining, both underground and strip mining. He company, he noted, just received a $100 million dollar grant from the US Department of Energy to develop their system. The benefits of this are obvious. A nation can clean up an environmental hazard and produce diesel fuel at the same time.
The fourth technology he holds out promise for is a new, small, mobile liquefied natural gas technology. While LNG has been around for a long time, it has traditionally required large refinery facilities to manufacture from methane/natural gas. This new system will enable LNG to be manufactured from small, isolated deposits of methane such as that found in city landfills and abandoned coal mines. The LNG can then be used as a transportation fuel.
Woolsey sees these four -- and others -- as very real, near-term viable ways to reduce a nation's dependence on imported oil while also cleaning up the environment and reducing CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming.
"I think that's a nice combination," he stated.
No Silver Bullet
A "Skoop Jackson" conservative Democrat, as he refers to himself, Woolsey thinks that it is just as important to look at conservation and energy efficiency technologies as waste-to-fuel technologies. He said that we have to engage all of these approaches because there is no one "silver bullet" that will solve our energy problems.
"If you're moving on all these fronts at once, the cumulative effect can be quite substantial," he remarked. "The technology that find immediately interesting is gasoline-electric hybrids." While he thinks small gains in automotive design and in the internal combustion engine are important, they are nowhere near as "dramatic" as that offered by hybrid-electric systems like those found in the Honda Civic, which he had just been looking at in a local DC-area dealership.
He thinks that what carmakers need to be doing is expanding the range of offerings of such fuel efficient vehicles including SUVs. He said there are families that do need large vehicles and in addition to making them safer, carmakers need to be improving their fuel efficiency.
"A hybrid SUV that gets 30 miles to the gallon is a better deal from the point of view of fuel economy than a regular four passenger vehicle that get's twenty-nine miles to the gallon."
Woolsey is in favor of giving tax credits and other incentives to encourage consumers to buy hybrids. He also would like to see those hybrids be able to use alternative fuels. He doesn't see any technical reason why a hybrid can't also be made a flexible fuel vehicle, one that can run on 85 percent ethanol, for example.
[Editor's note: EV World burns a 10% blend of ethanol and gasoline in our Honda Insight].
He calculates that a 30 mpg SUV burning 85% ethanol would be equivalent to getting close to 200 mpg of gasoline.
"These technologies are not pie-in-the-sky," he emphasized saying there are over a hundred thousand gasoline electric hybrids on the road today and millions of flexible fuel vehicles. He thinks that government incentives will encourage people to buy and use these vehicles, which themselves use our existing fueling infrastructure, "rather than always looking 15 to 20 years off in the future, an obvious reference to Bush's "FreedomCAR" and "FreedomFuel" proposals.
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