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Joules From Heaven

Last week, the Obama administration made a few bold moves on energy policy -- it revamped the rules governing offshore drilling, and increased the Corporate Average Fuel Economy mandate for future vehicles. At first glance, it seemed a fairly balanced week.

But as with all Obama statements, one must look carefully. While it's true that all Obama promises come with expiration dates, it's also true that sometimes what he says at first is the diametric opposite of what he really means.

(A good hint that Obama's one-two move was not on the up-and-up was that it was praised by the Boston Globe. If they like something that seems politically balanced, then you know there's a gotcha for the right in there somewhere.)

That energy policy was a classic example of the latter. With one hand, he lifted long-standing bans on oil exploration off large swaths of the United States coastline -- in theory, increasing the potential domestic energy generation.

In practice, other provisions in the bill toughened bans on offshore oil drilling in places where we know there's oil, while only allowing studies on whether or not to allow future exploration -- in other words, two major steps before actually allowing drilling.

Meantime, the government has chosen to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards on new vehicles sold in the US to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 -- up from the current 25 MPG. As the Globe noted, that's about a 40% increase.

So, how are the car makers going to meet that standards? Since the Obama administration took over two of the three domestic auto makers, one would think that they'd be thinking about that. But they've said that they intend to be out of the auto business as soon as possible, so that isn't really their concern.

There are only a few ways to increase a vehicle's fuel efficiency. Decrease the size (and consequently power) of the engine, increase the efficiency of the engine (making it do more with less), improve its aerodynamics, or decrease its weight.

Reduce engine power? Americans won't go for that. We want (channeling Tim Allen) MORE POWER.

Improve aerodynamics? They're already damned good. The coefficient of drag on new cars is pretty optimal already. There's not much more we can do without making cars narrower or shorter -- and people are trending towards being taller and wider with every generation.

Decrease weight? That's the likeliest solution. But reduced weight means a host of things that Americans simply don't want. It means fewer options and features -- things like power windows, air conditioning, sun roofs, power seats, navigation systems, and the like all add weight to a car.

Dwarfing the weight of accessories, however, are the big items like the engine, body, and frame. (Or, as has become far more common, the "unibody" combined body and frame.) With those components, there are two ways of reducing weight: use metals lighter and stronger than steel, or less steel. The lighter, stronger metals cost more, so the vehicle will cost more. Using less steel means the car itself is nowhere near as strong -- or as safe.

Which means that when your brand-new, exceptionally fuel-efficient car gets T-boned by some escapee from the Cash For Clunkers program, you're even more likelier to end up in dire need of ObamaCare -- or having to be taken from the scene in a Ziploc bag. (Remember, safety features also add weight to a car.)

So the only last option is to make the car engines more efficient. To get them to do more with less.

This is the solution that's perfectly in tune with the Obama administration's policies on energy and the economy. Just tell people to do the impossible, and then blame them when they fail. It's precisely the sort of policies you would expect from an administration stuffed to the gills with people who've spent their entire lives living with theories, and damned little contact with reality.

While it's true that Americans can work miracles, it's a very dangerous policy to depend on that.

All of this is of no concern to the Obama administration, however. They're stuck in Eternal Campaign mode, which means they're focusing on how things will appear in November 2010 and November 2012.

That things will go utterly pear-shaped after those dates is utterly irrelevant to them.


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Comments (9)

MPG is an iffy subject. Li... (Below threshold)

MPG is an iffy subject. Lightening the vehicle can only go so far as long as there's mandated safety gear. Safety belts I've got no problems at all with, center-mount air bags I'm iffy on. (Don't like an explosive charge staring me in the face, for some reason...) The side curtain air bags and such seem to me to be gilding the safety lily - if you look that the crash tests over the last few decades the focus seems more and more on desiging a test that'll cause the current generation of safety equipment to fail.

But then, the testing labs aren't going to stay in business by going "This is safe enough." So with escalation, I fully expect drop tests from 50 feet with a 5-ton Acme Anvil to check rollover safety in the next decade. Yes, you can develop something that'll withstand that - but it won't be light and it won't be cheap.

Realistically, we could dial back safety levels to the mid-80s and have things 'safe enough', but wouldn't people just howl about that... The old 'If one life were saved by it, that justifies the cost' meme is a powerful one. We could mandate all cars be able to serve as submarines just in case you drive off a bridge, and that'd be damned expensive to implement. But if just one life is saved...

As far as the drilling goes - the refusal to drill here in the US has always been excused by saying it'll take too long to bring the oil to market, or there's too many worries about pollution. I think Hurricane Katrina's pretty well sealed the lid on the pollution concerns - lots of oil wells and drill rigs were trashed, but there was no ecological devastation or even noticeable oil leakage. The safety gear worked in that case.

As far as taking too long - when gas zoomed up in price following Katrina, we were told it'd take 3 to 5 years to get offshore or domestic production ramped up, so it wasn't worth bothering with politcally.

Here we are 5 years later. Gas is locally up to $2.79 a gallon. Obama just CUT the possibilities for drilling in the near future. Drilling leases in Utah and Wyoming have been stalled. It'll take a long time to bring that oil to market, and we've got to do another round of environmental impact studies.

If you apply a gameplaying model to our energy policy over the last couple of centuries, each level (wood, coal, natural gas) was a means to bootstrap to the next. Wood got steam engines going, which enabled pumping water out of the ground and air to coal miners. Coal fueled the industrial revolution and facilitated development of electricity, now the majority of plants are natural gas and coal. We've got the next level available (After all, if the French can make civilian nuclear power plants in bulk, so can we...) but we're not using it. You want an electric auto/transportation infrastructure? You gotta have the power, and wind/solar ain't gonna cut it.

Mass-produce fission plants to tide us over until fusion becomes practical, and we've won the game - even if we've got to spend 200 years developing fusion. Maybe there'll be something beyond fusion - but we won't know until were on that level.

But now? We're headed for an epic fail as our government pays more attention to eco-luddites than the people who pay their salaries.

There's a wide range of options between "Strip mine and pave the planet!" and "Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything", and it'd be nice if our esteemed representatives and senators realized their constituents have been hit badly by their refusal to do anything that'll anger the greens. We're close to being irrevocably screwed because our politicans won't see beyond the next election cycle.

Perhaps this is a good exam... (Below threshold)

Perhaps this is a good example showing that lighting CAN strike the same place twice, or thrice, or whatever. Until the economy is pulverized. We need someone to steal the thunderbolts from Zeus...

You got that right, Jay. H... (Below threshold)

You got that right, Jay. He has no intention (and neither does Congress) of allowing more drilling. His announcement amounts to nothing more than, "We'll look into it."

Obama's doing a great job o... (Below threshold)

Obama's doing a great job of planning deadlines which are going to make the next administration look like monsters.

I agree that it's infeasible to raise gas mileage much in the next 6 years, especially as much as 40%. But I would go so far as to say that aside from safety features and air conditions, removing features from an automobile would not make it appreciable lighter.

Ironically, put a family of four into a car, and thanks to ever-increasing American obesity, you've already replaced the weight that the auto manufacturers laboured to remove.

Really, fitting cars with little, hummingbird motors is the only suggestion that I think would come within scope of making the difference.

And just in time for Obama'... (Below threshold)

And just in time for Obama's new rules...

IEEE Spectrum: Supercritical Fuel Combustion Could Drastically Improve Efficiency

Transonic Combustion's fuel injection system aims to blow hybrid technologies out of the water. They have demonstrated the ability to get as much as 64 miles-per-gallon on the highway using their TSCi technology, compared to a Toyota Prius's 48 MPG. The technology is likely still a few years away from any degree of mass adoption, but it and similar technologies have the potential to join the alternative fuels movement in ramping up auto efficiency to extreme levels.
I'm sure there'll be some absolutely excellent reasons why these won't pass US emissions tests.

> Meantime, the governme... (Below threshold)

> Meantime, the government has chosen to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards on new vehicles sold in the US to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 -- up from the current 25 MPG. As the Globe noted, that's about a 40% increase.

Hah. Bonus
While the EPA has mandated the 35mpg standard, Congress has mandated a doubling of ethanol usage in fuel by 2016. If, for example, ethanol went from 10% to 20% of auto fuel that would lower fuel economy by 7-8% (since ethanol has less energy per gallon than gas).


The higher mpg mandates are... (Below threshold)

The higher mpg mandates are a sleight of hand. There is a loophole a mile wide that makes it possible, even selling the same number of SUVs.

It is that electric vehicles will treated as ZEVs. Well, at least the first 300,000 annually, after that power utilities emissions are factored in. So with a one for one match, a 19 mpg Escalade and a gazillion mpg electric car will instantly average 38 mpg. How the Chevy Volt will be treated (it uses an IC engine as backup) hasn't yet been determined, other than the first 40 miles of the emissions test cycle will be as a ZEV. Smart betting says Obama Motors won't be treated harshly.

Arthur,Enforcing t... (Below threshold)


Enforcing the ethanol mandates is a problem right now. Because of lower motor fuel use (the recession, more efficient cars and a higher mix of smaller cars) we simply won't use the required amount of ethanol using E10. The corn lobby says just mandate 15%, but there are tremendous administrative hurdles to do that.

First is manufacturers must certify the drivetrain will stay within EPA specs for 100,000 miles. Manufacturers conduct their tests with E10. So any change will mean recertification, which will take a minimum of 2 years -- most of which (but certainly not all) is redesgning and ordering compliant emission control devices.

The second and most important is most new car warranties specifically state the warranty will be voided if fuel with more than 10% ethanol is used. Most powertrain warranties are for 5 years/50,000 miles, some more. If Uncle Sam mandates 15% ethanol, they will be forcing car owners to void their warranties. Who pays if the engine fails? The cash strapped car companies, the owner who was forced to void his warranty, or Congress (really you or me)?

This is the problem with mandating usage. Sometimes it simply can't be done.

I see these measures as jus... (Below threshold)

I see these measures as just another step towards moving the US to a European-style Socialist gov. The cars we WANT will be scarce and expensive; the rest will be tiny and not very practical from the view of a typical American.
As far as any break-throughs in engine/fuel technology, I also subscribe to the conspiracy theory that either big oil or Detroit has purchased (read: stolen) the patent rights to most anything already discovered and/or possible for the future. They are just waiting for oil to get scarcer and/or the right time to come. It is real hard for me to believe we haven't been able to come up with something more effecient than fuel-injection or these hybreds.






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