11/1/2008 | 11 MINUTE READ

Enviromental Issues: Beyond Petroleum

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Sure, emissions and CAFE requirements are considerable, but they're only part of the environmental picture as it relates to the auto industry. When's thelast time you worried about water?


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You arrive in Portland, Oregon, for the "Toyota Sustainable Mobility Seminar." There is the person in baggage claim awaiting your arrival. And rather than calling for a car to transport you downtown to where the seminar is being held, she hands you a ticket and a map for the MAX light rail system, part of the TriMet network (Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon): if you're going to learn about mobility, then you're going to start right away. There are buses and streetcars in the network, as well. There is a large section of the downtown Portland area where the modern, clean streetcars can be ridden for free. You later take a tour of the downtown area. And learn that like many cities, Portland has bike lanes on some of its streets. In the morning, you see all manner of people-young and old, professional and student-riding to their jobs and classes. Bikes are big in Portland.

But you also learn that unlike any city you're aware of, Portland even has skateboard lanes on some of its city streets. Yes, skateboards.


Cars & Trucks & No Individual Buyers.

To be sure, there are cars and trucks in Portland. But perhaps not as many as there otherwise might be. This is because Portland is one of the cities where the car-sharing firm Zipcar has locations (www.zipcar.com). In some ways, Zipcar is embraced by the city itself, as is attested to by non-commercial orange-painted sign poles on street corners that include glyphs for walking, biking, riding the public transport, and using car-sharing. In the Zipcar approach, people buy memberships, then reserve a car or truck via a browser for a period of time-be it an hour or a day. The vehicles are parked in set spots and returned to them. The users have a "Zipcard" that is read by a card reader and allows access to the vehicle. If gas is needed, then a fuel card in the vehicle can be used to pay for the fill up. According to a recent survey by Zipcar, 65% of its members who responded indicate that they have decided to get rid of a household vehicle or not buy one that they were thinking about. And 40% said that Zipcar use has led them to use more public transportation. Zipcar has some 225,000 members, and 5,500 vehicles in 26 North American states and provinces, and in London, England. It offers more than 30 makes and models of cars and trucks. Yes, Prius. But a considerable array of non-Toyotas are in the fleet. 

Remember: this is a seminar sponsored by a car company and you're learning that there's more to getting from point A to B than driving. And what you begin to learn about the energy situation makes you feel less easy about the future of cars and trucks as we drive them today.


Black Gold.

The seminar opens with Dr. Peter Wells, director of Neftex Petroleum Consultants, Ltd., which is based in Oxfordshire, U.K. (Wells, whose degrees are in geology, held a post-doc position at Oxford University). Wells doesn't live in the shire. He lives in Dubai. It is closer to the area of his concern. His background includes stints with Shell (during which he was exploration manager for Eastern Nigeria) and BP (serving as chief negotiator for the gas and oil fields of Azerbaijan). Which account for about 16 of his 30 years in the petroleum industry.

Among the observations he makes are things like:

  • The U.S. consumes the equivalent of the largest discovered oil field every two years.
  • 75% of the crude used in the U.S. goes to transportation; it's 61% in other parts of the world.
  • 86% of the oil supply today is crude; natural gas liquids account for about 11.4%; the Canadian tar sands are just 1.6% and biofuels 1%.
  • And that politicians notwithstanding, if there was an oil field discovered today offshore, it would take 10 to 20 years to get the oil operation running. He points out that chances are, the first well drilled isn't going to be a strike, and that there is a whole lot of infrastructure-from drilling equipment to pipelines to people (apparently there was an exodus of people from the oil industry during the 1990s such that they are a rare commodity)-that has to be put in place in order for meaningful production to occur. (Said more simply: It won't drive the prices down at the pump next week.)
  • Of the world's oil, 42.8% comes from the OPEC countries; 16.2% from the former Soviet Union; 33.9% from the rest of the world, with the exception of the U.S. is responsible for 7.1%.
  • As of 2008, non-OPEC production has peaked.

Wells and his colleagues, working with a vast array of sources that look at historical patterns and future projections, have essentially concluded that there has been about a trillion barrels of oil produced and about a trillion barrels of discovered oil yet to be tapped. "Peak" oil is going to occur in about 2015.

While he acknowledges that there are some technical means that can be used to enhance recovery from wells (e.g., injecting gases such as CO2 or N2 into the well in order to drive out more oil), this is not everywhere applicable for a number of reasons (e.g., consider off-shore drilling: how can the gases be economically transported to the platform?).


Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Period.

Wells suggests: Be prepared for major price fluctuations in the near term. That's right: It will go up and down, but realize that it will go up in the long term. To be sure, there is still lots of oil, but the amount is finite, no matter how you run the numbers. (Wells points out that there is not only a geological aspect to oil, but a sociopolitical one, as well; much of the work that he is personally involved with nowadays deals with human aspects of the oil industry; he points out, for example, that the leaders of most Persian Gulf countries think of oil as a legacy for their children, so they are in it for the long term, not just short-term gains.)

Implications that Dr. Wells sees from his work for vehicle manufacturers is that they need to start diversifying their mix of powertrains in order to utilize other types of fuel besides that based on petroleum (e.g., CNG, hydrogen). No, he's not an auto expert. He just knows a lot about the stuff that goes into them.

Of course, there's more to be concerned with environmentally than just oil. Like water.


H2O-My. This Isn't Good.

Dr. Tim P. Barnett of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and his colleagues have done extensive research on the subject of climate change and its implications on the hydrological cycle. Given the Scripps base of operations (La Jolla, CA), they've focused on the implications for the western U.S. And they've concluded that there is anthropogenic warming occurring (yes, that's anthro as in "man"), and that it is leading to such things as a declining snowpack in the Rockies and elsewhere in the west. Consequences of this means that the next 30 years are going to be grim vis-à-vis water supplies in an area that's attracting a considerable number of people, which means the consumption of even more water. Grim as in there being a 70% probability that there will be a water shortage in Los Angeles in 2025.

Consider, for example, the Columbia River, which is the water supply for 27 million people. According to Barnett, all of the Colorado is being used. If you've seen a recent picture of Lake Mead, the biggest water reservoir in the west, you've undoubtedly noticed the bathtub-ring effect because the lake is down 118 feet from its maximum elevation and is now at 46% capacity. It running dry is not out of the realm of possibility.

Realize that there are energy implications to water, as well as to anthrohydration (as in man having something to drink).


Energy, Meet Water. And Vice Versa.

According to Dr. John A. Merson, senior manager in the Geoscience Research & Applications Group, Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque), energy and water are interdependent. Water is necessary for such energy-related activities as thermoelectric cooling, hydropower, and for mining operations. And energy is necessary for pumping, treating, and conveying water.

Or, more to the point: the average amount of water used to get a gallon of fuel via conventional oil processing: 1 to 2.5 gallons. When it comes to biofuels, the numbers are astonishing. Biodiesel processing takes only about two gallons for a gallon of fuel. But the irrigation for the soybeans needed for the biodiesel requires about 6,500 gallons for the gallon of fuel. Grain ethanol processing requires from 3 to 7 gallons of water; the corn irrigation needs about 980 gallons. (In general, on a daily basis, irrigation accounts for 80.6% of U.S. freshwater consumption.)

If, as Dr. Merson suggests, the U.S. is going to need 33% more transportation fuels by 2030, and if we take the analysis of oil by Dr. Wells into account and add in Dr. Barnetts's analysis of water, then achieving that increase is going to be more daunting than just drilling in wildlife refuges, city parks, backyards, or wherever.


Crop Circles in the Switchgrass.

And the alternatives look less appealing than they otherwise might. Dr. Jan F. Kreider, founding director of the University of Colorado's Joint Center for Energy Management and professor emeritus of Engineering, says that if all of the cropland in the U.S. was used to grow corn for ethanol, that would result in enough ethanol for half of the near-term U.S. automotive energy needs. And that cycles back to the water issue, as Dr. Kreider points out that there is no more "discretionary water" in the U.S., so the required irrigation for all that corn just can't happen.

Cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass? The good news is that vis-à-vis corn, the switchgrass yields per acre are greater. The bad news is that when looked at from the point of view of the energy inputs required (including agricultural diesel fuel use; irrigation pumping energy; other farming energy; refining energy; and transportation energy), it takes more energy to convert the switchgrass into ethanol than it does corn because of the complexity of the sugars that need to be broken down. Biodiesel? According to Dr. Kreider, some 93 million tons of soybeans are grown in the U.S. each year. If all of that was used for biodiesel, it would handle less than 1% of automotive energy needs.

Kreider does see some hope for the growing algae approach to creating biodiesel. Essentially, the energy input required for growing the autotrophic organisms is sunlight. This can occur in open ponds or closed reactors. Compared to the other biofuels, the land requirements are minimal, as are the water requirements. But he points out that while the feedstock is not the issue, how it is hauled and refined must be further developed. "We don't want to do nothing, but we must be careful in terms of what we want to do," Kreider says.


No Single Mr. Fix-It. It Takes A Whole Lot of People.

So what can a company do? This, in part, is addressed by Bill Reinert, national manager, Advanced Technology Vehicles, Toyota Motor Sales, USA.

Yes, finally someone who is going to talk about cars.

Yet he, too, begins with a litany of challenges-from a dramatic increase in population and the number of vehicles (earlier Gordon Feller, CEO of the Urban Institute, noted that presently there are more people on the planet who live in cities than don't, and that by 2025 there will be some 5 billion people living in cities-imagine the 24/7 "rush hour" there), to the accelerated consumption of fossil fuels. And he points out that there are drivers for change including energy and fuel diversification; CO2 reduction requirements; lower exhaust emissions regulations; and urban congestion.

Reinert admits with amused candor: "We can't fix it all in the U.S. We can't fix it all at Toyota." Sometimes it seems like a car company does, indeed, have all the answers. Not so.

So they are taking a systems approach to sustainable mobility. The elements are vehicles, energy, environment, and partnerships. There is a recognition that Toyota might do a great job of engineering vehicles, the problem is bigger than any car or truck. Other constituents need to be part of the solution. For example, he points out that Toyota, like other vehicle manufacturers, is working on its fuel cell (the goal is for commercialization by 2015), but there isn't a single 10,000 psi hydrogen fueling station on the highways and byways. Obviously, there needs to be participation by energy companies for that alternative to become viable. Not even Toyota can do that. In addition to which, if there are going to be 27 "mega cities" with 10-million or more inhabitants by 2015, as Feller suggests, then dealing with mobility-to say nothing of sustainability-will require the involvement of governments and NGOs. Not even Toyota can do that.

According the Reinert, Toyota is going to continue to build upon a strength that it has developed since 1997: "Hybrid is our core strategy and it will remain core." He acknowledges that they're going to be working to reduce costs and to increase performance. But going forward, developments will be predicated on the Prius and its variants. And he makes a notable point about the Prius: It was successful because the technology was transparent to the customer. In other words, people want the benefit, they don't want to compromise to achieve it.

But beyond cars alone, what is abund-antly clear-more than transparent-is that vehicle manufacturers are going to have to start putting other elements in their product planning mix, whether it is fuels or footprints, and they are going to have to start engaging with constituents other than dealers and customers.

And you walk away from the seminar. Puzzled that a car company would hold it but slightly encouraged that one has.