18 August 2009

As we drove in to the studio today the average gas prices at the pump were about $2.89 per gallon.  Our guest on tonight’s Ecotopia predicts that an eventual rise to $20 per gallon is inevitable. Chris Steiner, a staff writer for Forbes magazine has written some bad news/good news scenarios as gas goes up—to $6, to $10, to $18–and he’ll share some of those prophesies with us.

News for Gasaholics

We’ve been monitoring news stories about the price of gas this week, and they are a dime a dozen, much less than gasoline.  From the Vallejo Times-Herald comes a typical story on gas prices in California:  Gas prices up, leveling off

Gasoline prices have leveled off after a slow upward climb over the last week, according to the latest report from AAA Northern California.  However, prices at the pump are up 16 cents from last month with the average price statewide at $3.05 per gallon, AAA reported.  In Vallejo, the average price of gas is $3.03 per gallon, up 15 cents over last month.  Gas is 10 cents higher in Benicia where the average cost of a gallon is $3.13.  Most cities in California are now above the $3 per gallon mark, and the state’s average gas price is the third highest among all 50 states, the AAA reports. But that is considerably cheaper than what motorists were paying last year when the average price of gas in California was $4.12 per gallon. […] The national average price of $2.64 is up by 12 cents, which is still $1.17 cheaper than the national price on this date last year — $3.81.  The recent oil rally, AAA analysts say, is based on optimism over the economic outlook nationally and overseas. The weak dollar has also encouraged investors to purchase oil, the agency noted.  The cheapest gas in Northern California can be found in Chico, Marysville, and Modesto while Eureka had the highest average price at $3.30.  Springfield, Mo. has the least expensive gas in the country at $2.38 a gallon.


Up, down, leveling, declining—who knows what it will cost to fill the tank.  Last December on Ecotopia we interviewed Antonia Juhasz, author of a book called The Tyranny of Oil, and we reached the general conclusion that fluctuations in gas prices contradict everything we learned about the free market in our high school economics class—supply and demand just doesn’t explain what’s going on with oil worldwide. In fact, world wide oil consumption is actually down—perhaps due more to the economy than conservation–yet prices still waver unpredictably. (You can listen to that show or read the script  at www.ecotopiakzfr.net. Look in the archives for Ecotopia #11.)

To toss gasoline on the blaze, we want to read from a provocative guest editorial in this week’s Chico News and Review, where Steve Thompson, Chairman of the Butte County Republican Party, argues that

“Money from offshore drilling could have saved many social services,” but the Democrats in the state legislature refused to permit drilling off Santa Barbara that could bring the state $100 million this year and a potential $1.8 billion over the next 14 years. Enough,” [he says,]  “to have covered the programs for abused and neglected children, as well as community services for the elderly.”children, as well as community services for the elderly. How many IHSS workers could be hired with the $100 million that Democrats tossed away so callously? […]

His recommendation?

Open the gates and remove the shackles. Put restraining orders on the regulatory agencies and let people once again make money. Get government out of the way so that our economy can rebound. The abundant wealth created in newly opened markets will provide more than enough tax revenue for those dependent on the system.

Put more succinctly, Drill, baby, drill!!!

Mr. Thompson punctuated that last sentence with not one, but three exclamation points!!!


If you prefer conservation to consumption, you probably were interested in the announcement by General Motors last week that the new hybrid Chevy volt may get astronomical gas mileage.  From the press release at volt.com

WARREN, Mich.The Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle is expected to achieve city fuel economy of at least 230 miles per gallon, based on development testing using a draft EPA federal fuel economy methodology for labeling for plug-in electric vehicles.  The Volt, which is scheduled to start production in late 2010 as a 2011 model, is expected to travel up to 40 miles on electricity from a single battery charge and be able to extend its overall range to more than 300 miles with its flex fuel-powered engine-generator.  “From the data we’ve seen, many Chevy Volt drivers may be able to be in pure electric mode on a daily basis without having to use any gas,” said GM Chief Executive Officer Fritz Henderson. “EPA labels are a yardstick for customers to compare the fuel efficiency of vehicles. So, a vehicle like the Volt that achieves a composite triple-digit fuel economy is a game-changer.”

Within hours of the announcement, Automobile Mag dot com editor Eric Tingwall challenged the GM’s 230 mpg estimate: He wrote:

[…] we’re not buying it.  For a vehicle like the Volt […], 230 mpg doesn’t make any sense. In fact, any mpg rating that attempts to combine the efficiencies of the electric and gasoline powertrains doesn’t make sense for a range-extended electric vehicle like the Volt. Some consumers, who diligently charge their Volts and drive less than 40 miles, may never fill their cars with gas. And others, who drive on cross-country road trips, may only see 40 gas-free miles before covering the next 2000 miles with the help of the gas engine. For those very long drives, the real-world mpg number will effectively become the fuel economy of the gas engine – maybe around 40 mpg.  So we’ve now got Volts returning infinity mpg and 40 mpg….


And we’d like to know how the electricity for daily recharging of the Chevy Volt is generated. How many electric miles do you get for burning a lump of coal?

Our Questions for Christopher Steiner

Chris Steiner is a senior staff writer for Forbes magazine and the author of a new book, $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009.

Part I: The book and your predictions

  • You open your book with a description of “Bill,” your typical American suburbanite. How is Bill representative of the petroleum culture?  So what’s going to happen to Bill, his family, and the rest of us in coming years? How do you see their lives and lifestyle changing?  What’s the time frame for the rise to $20 per gallon?
  • What tools or measurements did you use to forecast the rise of gasoline prices to $20?  [On this program, we’ve had several discussions about how the price of gas is actually set. What are your thoughts?  Is this capitalism and the free market?  supply and demand? the middle eastern oil cartels?  speculators and profiteers?]
  • You suggest that rising gas prices will result in:
    • a skinner America
    • the end of the big yellow school bus
    • the disappearance of Las Vegas and Disneyland.
      How do you get to those kinds of conclusions?
  • Here in Chico, Wal-Mart has proposed expanding its current store to create a Super Center. What do your predictions have to say about Wal-Mart and other big box stores?
  • You believe that the airline industry is already on the brink of collapse.  What is its future as gas prices rise? How will we get from here to there if the planes disappear?
  • Your book generally points in directions that the “greens” support—localization, wind and solar power.  Yet you also see a major place for nuclear energy in this picture, which leads to several questions:
    • Several people we’ve interviewed on this program say that nuclear energy is so costly it will price itself out of the market.  You seem to think that the price of gasoline will actually make nuclear affordable. Please give us your thoughts on that.
    • You also seem to think that nuclear energy has gotten something of a bad rap as dangerous and ecologically unsound.  How do you reach those conclusions?
    • Wouldn’t new nuclear energy require vast restructuring of the grid, in apparent opposition to the kind of localization that you predict in your book?
  • What’s the worst case scenario you envisage as gas prices rise?  Will we love or be at war with our neighbors?

Part II:

In the first part of the interview, we talked mainly about your predictions. In this segment, we’d like to hear from you about how people can best prepare for the future.

  • The subtitle of your book emphasizes that the “the inevitable rise in the price of gasoline will change our lives for the better.” How do you reach that conclusion? What’s your best case scenario for the future?
  • How do you see the current U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Iran, as well as our concerns about Iran, fitting into the future scenario?  (Might war, in general, become too expensive for the power nations to pursue?)
  • There have been widespread predictions that “green jobs” and green industries can provide a boost to the economy. Does this seem to you to be true?  Would you advise young people to major in “green”?
  • Is our current economic stimulus package going in the right direction?  Should we bailing out auto companies if the future does not include the SUV? Are there better ways in which we could stimulate the economy?
  • Might not our government intervene to moderate or subsidize gasoline prices to maintain the status quo?  Surely Wal-Mart and the auto makers and all sorts of corporate megabusinesses will not leave the scene without asking first for government support.
  • Suppose petroleum were an unlimited resource. Do you think people might implement the kind of life style changes you predict without that pressure?  In short, is humanity smart enough to save the planet without the petroleum crisis?
  • How can people today prepare for the future you predict? Please give us any recommendations you have for further reading, research, or action.


There are lots of places on the web that can tell you how to get better gas mileage, whatever you drive. One of these is is http://www.fueleconomy.gov/, a site run by the Environmental Protection Agency, which includes good info—mostly commonplace info–on:

Fuel economy and driving tips

Hybrids and flex-fuel vehicles

Ways to rate your own vehicle’s fuel efficiency

But we also thought it would be interesting to look up the answer to a claim that we’ve heard since we were kids, and for which there is some positive evidence.  The questiion is, “Can Cars Run on Water?”  Here’s an answer from the Earth Talk section of The Good Human Web Site:

There are a number of online marketing offers of kits that will convert your car to “run on water,” but these should be viewed skeptically. These kits, which attach to the car’s engine, use electrolysis to split the water (H2O) into its component molecules—hydrogen and oxygen—and then inject the resulting hydrogen into the engine’s combustion process to power the car along with the gasoline. Doing this, they say, makes the gasoline burn cleaner and more completely, thus making the engine more efficient.

But [some] experts say the energy equation on this type of system is not, in reality, efficient at all. For one, the electrolysis process uses energy, such as electricity in the home or the on-board car battery, to operate. By the laws of nature, then, the system uses more energy making hydrogen than the resulting hydrogen itself can supply, according to Dr. Fabio Chiara, research scientist in alternative combustion at the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State University.

Moreover, Chiara says, the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the vehicle “would be much larger, because two combustion processes [gasoline and hydrogen] are involved.” Finally, there is a safety consideration for consumers who add these devices to their cars. “H2 is a highly flammable and explosive gas,” he says, and would require special care in installation and use.

The electrolysis process could be viable in saving energy if a renewable, non-polluting energy source such as solar or wind could be harnessed to power it, although capturing enough of that energy source on board the car would be another hurdle.

Researchers today put more focus on using hydrogen to power fuel cells, which can replace internal combustion engines to power cars and emit only water from the tailpipe. And though hydrogen is combustible and can power an internal combustion engine, to use hydrogen in that way would squander its best potential: to power a fuel cell.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are gaining traction, but commercialization of hydrogen fuel has not yet been accomplished. “The potential benefits of fuel cells are significant,” say researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “[H]owever, many challenges must be overcome before fuel cell systems will be a competitive alternative for consumers.”

The state of California operates a “Hydrogen Highway” program that supports development of hydrogen fuel cell technology and infrastructure. And many companies are working on ways to produce, store and dispense hydrogen. Cars powered by fuel cells are in prototype stages now, nearing production.

While we all wait to see how that shakes out, the best choice today for high mileage and low emissions is still the gasoline/electric hybrid car. http://www.thegoodhuman.com/2009/08/09/can-cars-run-on-water/

References: Center for Automotive Research, http://car.eng.ohio-state.edu; NREL, www.nrel.gov; California Hydrogen Highway, www.hydrogenhighway.ca.gov.

Playlist for Ecotopia #47: $20 Per Gallon

1. In My Merry Oldsmobile      2:31   Bing Crosby Classic Voices 5

2. Beverly Hillbillies Theme Song (Ballad of Jed Clampett)    2:30   Roger Bass Man Kurt     So – Low!

3. Only So Much Oil In The Ground (LP Version)          3:50   Tower of Power    Urban Renewal

4. North Sea Oil (2004 Digital Remaster)   3:12   Jethro Tull        Stormwatch

5. Giant (from the Warner Bros. film, Giant)        3:15   Warner Bros. Orchestra     Movie Music: The Definitive Performances

6. Weave Me the Sunshine      4:28   Peter, Paul And Mary       The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. Route 66 3:29   The Cheetah Girls      Route 66 – Single

8. Route 66 3:01   Natalie Cole      Unforgettable: With Love

9. Route 66     7:12   The Brian Setzer Orchestra     The Ultimate Collection

10. Route 66        3:03   Buckwheat Zydeco     Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire

11. Route 66        2:57   Beegie Adair   Martini Lounge