The cost for a vehicle to run on methanol is thousands of dollars cheaper than running it on CNG or LNG in both the light-duty and heavy-duty vehicle sectors. In addition, recent MIT work by Cohn and his colleague, Leslie Bromberg, has indicated that a flex fuel-type passenger vehicle running on methanol could be potentially 30 percent more efficient than a vehicle powered by gasoline.
Electric cars may not help much
Electric vehicles powered by natural gas-generated electricity, or power derived from renewable sources such as wind and solar, could also help reduce U.S. oil dependency as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cohn, however, said he doesn't see electric cars saving the United States from an oil crisis anytime soon.
"I don't think there's any way electric vehicles can have any significant impact in the foreseeable future on the world oil market when you take into account the high vehicle cost," he said. "They're a difficult sell in the U.S. and even more difficult in places like China and India."
But the business case for natural gas vehicles may not end up being all that attractive, either. Bloomberg New Energy Finance anticipates that natural gas prices will increase over the next 24 months and could reach as much as $6.50 per million British thermal units by 2020, up from $2.75 at the end of last year.
Indeed, the natural gas industry needs prices to go up in order to see a return on its investments, said Ethan Zindler, head of policy analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "A lot of people will lose a lot of money if gas prices stay at $3.50 [per million British thermal units]," he said.
In the last Congress, the Energy Security Council helped propose the "Open Fuel Standard Act," which would require that no less than half of every auto manufacturer's fleet by 2014 be able to run on non-petroleum fuels in addition to, or instead of, petroleum-based fuels (ClimateWire, Oct. 26, 2011).
Electric and natural gas vehicles would qualify to help meet the quota, but feasibly so, too, would cars that can run on liquid fuels derived from coal, which are much worse in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Seeking more bipartisan support
The bill had bipartisan support, but failed to pass. Yesterday, the Energy Security Council vowed to renew lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and to look for more allies in the private sector.
Increasing the number of alternatives is important not just for the transportation sector, but across the energy sector, said John Block, former secretary of Agriculture under President Reagan.
"I think we need to make it easier to drill for gas and oil and mine for coal," he said, adding that ethanol is also an important energy source in the transportation sector. By minimizing subsidies, reducing regulation and opening up U.S. trade, entrepreneurs will find creative solutions to America's oil crisis, he said.
But retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, cautioned that energy security and national security should not be achieved at the expense of environmental security.
Natural gas is a win environmentally because it produces less local pollution and less carbon dioxide emissions than traditional petroleum and electricity generated from coal, he said. But it's necessary to consider the degree to which natural gas should replace other types of energy sources and the full life-cycle emissions associated with fuels derived from natural gas.
"We could find ourselves years down the road with a price on carbon, and if we are overinvested in a portfolio of transportation energy that's overly carbonated -- to use that term -- I think it would really be a mistake," he said.