Yogi Berra on Bioenergy

February 22, 2016 |

CleantechConservativeBy Douglas L. Faulkner, “The Cleantech Conservative”

With baseball’s spring training once again underway, it seemed appropriate to channel one of that sport’s legendary players into an article on biofuels. The late, great New York Yankee catcher and all-round American folk commentator, Yogi Berra, coined many timeless observations.

 “The future ain’t what it used to be”

In reflecting recently about the state of bioenergy and trends in the transportation industry, I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings of his: “The future ain’t what it used to be”.

Yogi could easily have been speaking about the certainty shown in several quarters about the future of biofuels and other forms of energy for transportation- – and why the “experts” are almost certainly wrong, again. On the left side of the political equation, it is becoming an accepted truth that electric vehicles should – – and will – – rapidly replace the internal combustion engine and thus add a critical piece to the climate solution puzzle. On the right, many see booming U.S. production of oil and gas as taking care of looming threats to our energy security. And, many supporters of first-generation biofuels (starch ethanol and plant or meat oil biodiesel) are convinced of the importance and permanence of the current Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). Unfortunately, I believe almost all are wrong and missing seeing the critical need a decade or more down-the-road for advanced biofuels to serve as a vital insurance policy for America and its allies.

YogiBerra“It’s déjà vu all over again!”

One should never forget that virtually nobody saw the onset of fracking unfolding, even while Washington, D.C., was putting the final touches on the 2007 energy bill and the RFS – – right as oil imports were peaking. I fear similar misplaced assumptions about the future may well be happening again – – only this time with much more damaging results for energy security and public policy credibility. One can almost hear Yogi mutter, “It’s déjà vu all over again!”

Behind my skepticism about current conventional wisdom in the green transportation arena:

  • Plummeting oil prices are pushing American drivers to buy bigger, liquid-fueled vehicles and buy more gasoline and diesel;
  • Electric vehicle battery costs are dropping and their technology advancing. But, electric cars don’t look as certain as they did only a few years ago, as the truth-telling Energy Secretary Moniz recently admitted when he said that the Administration’s original goal for one million electric car sales by 2015 will be pushed back several years;
  • And, even if that goal is achieved it is still a drop in the bucket out of the total American fleet of about 250 million vehicles;
  • Growing environmental pressure to reduce global carbon emissions and to increase food production, may well blunt new oil production offshore and in the Arctic as well as big expansions of first-generation biofuels;
  • Geopolitical unrest in oil-producing regions and along vulnerable sea lanes may give rise to long-term instability in oil markets;
  • Climbing federal debt, as highlighted in the recent scary predictions from the Congressional Budget Office, sparks new questions about the wisdom of tax breaks for the wealthy to buy electric vehicles;
  • The automakers’ fears about hard-pressed lower and middle classes going on a buyers’ strike against ever-more expensive personal transportation options mandated by an over-reaching federal government may cause a backlash against the Obama Administration’s mileage rules;
  • The bioenergy industry is spreading out beyond the industrialized world, with widely varying markets, politics and prospects in each region of the world, further complicating the already hard-to-grasp energy and environment debate here at home;
  • New-found clout in more ideological Democratic and Republican parties against crony capitalism and insider wheeling and dealing – – underscored by the surprising victory of an anti-RFS GOP candidate in corn ethanol’s Iowa heartland – – may ensure that the new President and Congress next year will be less enamored of traditional approaches and power centers and more focused on real government reform.

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”

What does all this mean? Yes, Yogi, you “can observe a lot by just watching.” Today’s conventional wisdom may not stand the test of time and the competing pressures on the transportation, energy and agricultural sectors; the future may well get murkier from all of the competing policy and technology cross-currents, before it clears up.  The different key interest groups – – Big Oil, Big Biofuels, Big Auto, Big Ag and Big Enviros – – may actually check and block each other, leading to domestic policy stalemate, with one exception.

I would argue: don’t bet on electric cars or easy oil or an always rising tide of traditional ethanol or biodiesel under the existing RFS to fill the transportation energy gap or help to reduce carbon output for the next energy and environmental crises already looming, hidden in plain sight. They will of course play an important role in a true all-of-the-above strategy. Prudence though dictates nurturing advanced biofuels as the extra piece of the puzzle, giving them an extended but limited federal mandate so they could be in a position to offer a new insurance policy for both energy and environmental security by 2030. It also argues for a new look at federal light duty vehicle mileage standards next year.

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

Is it possible that the experts have it all wrong once again? Would Yogi look back at this time and wink knowingly, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” Maybe, just maybe, the venerable Yankee sage hits another homer.

When not consulting through his firm Leatherstocking, or penning articles for The Digest, Douglas Faulkner is running for election as a delegate to the Republican National Convention from Virginia’s Eighth Congressional District.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Category: Thought Leadership

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