The United States currently produces 8 percent of the world’s liquid fuel but uses 25 percent, making up the difference by importing 5 billion barrels of oil annually. With prices currently near $100 per barrel, this dependency will cost us $500 billion this year, an amount equal to the nation’s entire trade deficit. Furthermore, at a time when Congress is seeking to keep taxes light in order to boost job creation, our dependency will impose a tax on our economy equal to 20 percent of what Americans pay the IRS. Except, of course, that these revenues will go to the treasuries of foreign governments instead of our own.
During the 1940s, the United States produced 60 percent of the world’s liquid fuel. This advantage proved to be a major factor in securing the Allied victory in World War II. Had we been as weak in energy security then as we are today, we might well have lost the war, as enemy submarines could have collapsed our economy, and with it our war effort, simply by cutting off our oil supply.
If we are to break free of the crushing economic burden and national-security threat that oil dependency imposes, we need to triple our liquid-fuel production. There is no realistic way that this can be done through expanding domestic drilling for oil, multiplying the yield of corn ethanol (which now accounts for 20 percent of domestic liquid-fuel production), or a combination of the two. Rather, we need a new source of liquid fuel, one that can be produced easily and economically, from resources available to us, and on the vast scale required to address the deficiency.
Fortunately, such a fuel is available. It is methanol, also known as wood alcohol. In contrast to algae oils and cellulosic ethanol, methanol is not a futuristic pipe dream touted by researchers seeking funding. Rather, it is one of the world’s top five chemical commodities, with an operating global annual production capacity of 27 billion gallons, and a current spot price, without any subsidies, of $1.28 per gallon. While methanol contains only about half the energy per gallon of gasoline, its excellent octane rating of 105 allows it to be burned more efficiently, making $1.28-per-gallon methanol equivalent to $2-per-gallon gasoline. All in all, a very competitive price.
The resources available to support expanded methanol production are vast. In contrast to gasoline — which can be made economically only from petroleum — or ethanol — whose mass production requires the use of sugars or starches — methanol can readily be made from any carbon-containing material. To list a few of methanol’s potential sources: oil, natural gas, coal, urban garbage, or any kind of biomass without exception.
The United States possesses around 4 billion metric tons (29.5 billion barrels) of proven oil reserves. This would barely be enough to support a fully fuel-independent America for four years. In contrast, our proven coal reserves exceed 270 billion tons, and our natural-gas reserves may be nearly as great. North America currently produces about 40 billion metric tons per year of biomass, of which 2 billion tons are harvested as farm and forestry products and 1 billion tons discarded as agricultural and forestry waste. We also discard approximately a quarter-billion tons per year of carbonaceous urban trash. Thus, taken together, our resources for methanol production not only are up to fully replacing our current oil imports, but are up to supporting the growing demands of an expanding economy for decades or centuries to come.
Methanol burns cleaner than gasoline, causing much less particulate pollution. It is also safer — it is much less likely to catch fire in the event of a crash, and its fumes contain none of gasoline’s rich mixture of carcinogens. While, unlike ethanol, methanol is not edible, it is not especially toxic. In fact, windshield-wiper fluid is one-third methanol, and, because it is readily biodegradable, it has been handled by the public and released onto roads worldwide in vast quantities for decades without any impact on public health or the environment.
If we could convert our auto fleet to run on methanol, the $500 billion per year we are now paying foreign potentates for oil could go instead to American businesses and workers to produce our fuel right here at home. On average, it takes $100,000 of GDP to create one job. At that rate, the $500 billion spent here instead of abroad would create 5 million American jobs directly, and millions more indirectly from the construction, retail, and service industries that would be supported by the methanol workers’ paychecks. This would help address our critical national and state deficits as well, as millions of people would go from the unemployment rolls to the tax rolls.