Auto Fuel of the Future: Gasoline

April 05, 1994|By CHARLES J. DiBONA

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A lot of people these days are asking, ''What will be the fuel of the future?'' Some are talking about electric cars and cars that run on natural gas. Others say the answer is ethanol fuel, which is made out of corn.

But I am convinced that the fuel of the future -- the one that makes the most sense economically and environmentally, for the foreseeable future -- will be a lineal descendant of the fuels of the past and the present.

It will be advanced forms of ''reformulated'' gasoline -- new, clean-burning gasoline that is already coming to the market and that will provide unprecedented environmental performance when used in today's modern automobiles.

Why do I think it will be new forms of gasoline rather than some exotic form of energy?

First, because the infrastructure for gasoline -- the refineries, the pipelines, the service stations -- is already in place throughout the country. We don't have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to build a infrastructure for electric or ethanol cars.

Second, contrary to what many folks think, we aren't running out of oil. In 1950, world reserves of crude oil amounted to 76 billion barrels, about two decades' supply at the 1950 rate of consumption. Over the ensuing four decades, the world has used about 600 billion barrels, but it now has even more untapped reserves than 40 years ago.

In other words, for many years, on average, we've actually been discovering more oil than we've been using. Right now we have enough oil already located to last another 50 years. And we're finding more all the time.

And, finally, there's just no viable alternative to oil-based fuels in sight. Not technologically viable; not economically viable; not environmentally viable. Let's take a quick look at some of the ones people talk about.

Electric cars seem to be getting the most attention. But today's batteries can't deliver the energy of even four gallons of gasoline. Electric cars could cost twice what conventional cars do but can't go much over 100 miles without a charge.

Despite a $260 million research effort led by the big three U.S. auto-makers, there's no scientific breakthrough on the horizon, at least not a practical one for the next few decades. Furthermore, they're not pollution free, when you consider the emissions of coal-burning power plants that produce the electricity needed to recharge their batteries.

Ethanol is getting a big political push, but despite special-interest pleading and lobbying, there's no economic or environmental case for its expanded use.

It provides only two-thirds the energy of gasoline, costs twice as much to produce and increases nitrogen oxide emissions. To the extent that it plays any transportation role today, it's because of government subsidies.

The fact is, the only alternatives that might play a significantly bigger role in the foreseeable future are other petroleum fuels: natural gas and propane. They're clean-burning and reasonably plentiful.

But gas-burning vehicles require heavy, bulky tanks. Their range is limited and their future role will likely be primarily focused on centrally fueled vehicle fleets in central cities.

The case for gasoline as the fuel of the future, on the other hand, is very strong, but not simply because of the shortcomings of the alternatives. Gasoline will be plentiful and, therefore, reasonably priced.

And arguments against it, based primarily on the notion that gasoline burned in internal combustion engines is simply and unavoidably bad for the environment, are faulty. They are based on perceptions of the tailpipe that are 20 or 30 years out of date.

Today's new cars burning improved fuel produce 96 percent less tailpipe emissions than 1960 models. And oil refiners are developing an entirely new reformulated gasoline for 1995 that will cut emissions even more.

By the year 2000, new tailpipe standards will achieve almost a 99 percent reduction in emissions from pre-control days.

Progress is also taking place, as newer cars, which meet tougher emission standards, replace old ones. And well-designed, efficient inspection and maintenance programs -- perhaps using remote sensing devices to spot the worst polluters -- will further cut emissions from badly tuned cars, old and new.

Therefore, it's a good bet that, short of some unexpected technological breakthrough, your future automobile will be powered by a highly refined version of a very familiar fuel, one you have probably been using for many years.

Charles J. DiBona is president and chief executive officer of the American Petroleum Institute.

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