WASHINGTON — Vice President George Bush, some California officials and a growing number of congressmen view alcohol fuel as the magic bullet that will cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil, reduce air pollution and create new markets for natural gas, coal and agricultural products.
"There is more and more foreign oil coming in here, and if we can use our own abundance of natural gas and of corn, we will be helping the American worker and I think we'll be doing something for our national security," Bush said in a recent interview.
"This would be a good way to take the pressure off of the hard-hit areas, and it's also good for the future."
To set such a grand scheme in motion, a market needs to be developed, and advocates are eyeing the threat of federal sanctions against states with smog-laden air as just such an opportunity.
Cities Face Deadline
Dozens of cities face the loss of millions of federal highway dollars and a host of Draconian measures if they fail to meet federal standards for carbon monoxide and ozone by Dec. 31.
By converting government and commercial fleets to pure methanol and offering ethanol blends at gas stations, these cities could reduce these pollutants dramatically, experts say.
"One of the alternatives that some cities have been told they have to consider is that they'd have to close down their outdoor barbecue pits. Try that one on for size to see how it goes over with the consumers," Bush said.
"Before we go to those kinds of government intervention in the daily lives of the people, we'd better consider clean alternatives that nobody disputes can help meet these standards."
Methanol, refined cheaply from natural gas, produces 80% less ozone than gasoline. Cars burning 15% ethanol blends could cut carbon monoxide levels by 15% to 20%. However, ethanol, which can be made from corn, sugar and other crops, is expensive to produce, and currently receives a 60-cents-per-gallon government subsidy.
While Bush and others favor greater use of ethanol in the near term, research clearly shows that methanol is the alcohol fuel that will carry out their long-term vision.
In addition to being cheaper than ethanol, methanol already is being produced around the world and automobile manufacturers have models and conversion technology ready.
'Think We Can Cope'
Last month 42 senators asked Lee Thomas, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to order methanol use in areas that do not meet the clean-air standards for ozone or carbon monoxide. They cited environmental, national security and economic concerns.
So far this year, foreign oil imports, mostly from the Persian Gulf, have accounted for 40% of U.S. consumption, and dependence is growing.
Methanol, for the most part, is produced outside the United States because of lower costs, but Bush said that there is more than enough U.S. natural gas to produce the fuel and break the chains of the oil cartel.
"In terms of any projection of full use of methanol, I think we can cope," he said. "Right now we would have no trouble meeting a rather steeply increased projection of use of methanol from existing gas reserves."
But methanol-fueled cars will not be built until oil companies sell the fuel cheaply and widely.
"The car manufacturers are not going to commit to building cars without a system of fuel available, and the oil companies are not going to convert from oil to methanol without any immediate customers," said William Sessa of the California Air Resources Board.
"Someone needs to prime the pump."
As in the past, California has taken the lead. Half a dozen methanol bills have been introduced in the legislature this year with strong opposition thus far from only a few oil companies.
One measure would mandate that all vehicles sold in the state be methanol-fueled by 2000 and would require fleet operators with 15 or more cars to begin buying vehicles capable of burning either methanol or gasoline in 1991.
Another bill would provide subsidies for service station owners to convert tanks and pumps used for leaded gasoline to a methanol system.
"Over the past seven years, methanol as an alternative to gasoline and diesel fuels in California has gone from concept to reality," the California Energy Commission said in a report last fall.
"More than 600 light-duty, methanol-fueled vehicles have accumulated 12 million miles of day-to-day fleet service. . . . The evidence is clear that methanol works as a fuel for passenger cars and light-duty, methanol trucks as well as for buses and other heavy-duty equipment."
Methanol would cost about 59 cents per gallon, not counting state or federal taxes, according to Michael Lawrence, a consultant who is doing a study on methanol for the EPA.