Helping to transform oil into ‘just another commodity’
Questions for Anne Korin
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Energy independence will be the focus of an American Jewish Committee forum March 24 at the Livingston Public Library. The event — sponsored by AJC, the library, Environment NJ, GreenFaith, Operation Free, and Temple B’nai Abraham — will feature Anne Korin, codirector of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and chair of the Set America Free Coalition, and Aaron Scheinberg, NJ coordinator for Operation Free.
NJJN caught up with Anne Korin, author, with Gal Luft, of the book Turning Oil into Salt: Energy Independence Through Fuel Choice, in a phone interview on March 15.
NJJN: Can you explain what you mean by turning oil into salt and what that has to do with energy independence?
Korin: Salt was once a strategic commodity; it was the only way to preserve food. It determined the fate of nations and the course of world affairs. Wars were fought over salt. Countries decided where to establish colonies based on salt.
With the advent of refrigeration and other modern means of preserving food, salt no longer has any impact on world affairs. People don’t know or care where the salt deposits are or how much we import or produce. The world salt market is completely irrelevant unless that happens to be your business. That’s what energy independence can do for us. It will turn oil from a strategic commodity to just another commodity. Just as salt provided monopolies over food preservation, oil has a virtual monopoly over transportation fuel.
NJJN: Only about 30 percent of our oil imports come from OPEC nations and other regimes that are less friendly or less stable, correct? Why is this still a problem?
Korin: Oil is a fungible commodity. Think of it as a pool. Producers pour oil into the pool, and consumers take it out. No oil comes from Iran. But what Iran does impacts everyone because in a global market, it just doesn’t matter who the United States imports from. Energy independence has nothing to do with the level of consumption or production. It has to do with whether or not oil remains a strategic commodity. We need to break up the virtual monopoly over transportation fuel.
NJJN: So what’s the solution?
Korin: Fuel choice. The lowest hanging fruit is an open fuel standard. That means, for about $100 a car, liquid fuels can compete. We can use gasoline as well as a variety of alcohol fuels. The next step would be plug-in hybrid cars. But this will take a long time, and we don’t have to limit ourselves to just one solution.
NJJN: But is this possible? Are Americans really ready for hybrid plug-ins and gasoline alternatives?
Korin: It’s possible from a technical standpoint. Brazil went from 0 to 70 percent flexible fuel in three years. By 2008 they were at 90 percent. It’s the same with auto companies [there and here]. It’s not brain surgery. The key step is having the public and elected officials connect the dots. In the 2008 presidential elections, when the public felt that alternatives to energy use were the solution, it thought nuclear, solar, and wind power were the solution. So [Barack] Obama talked about ending our dependence on oil by talking about solar and wind power, and [John] McCain talked about ending our dependence on oil by talking about nuclear power. This is political malpractice. We need the public to be educated. Only 2 percent of the U.S. electrical supply comes from oil.
NJJN: When you say viable alternatives to oil, are you talking about ethanol? Doesn’t this create other environmental issues; that is, doesn’t it take more energy to produce ethanol than what we end up saving?
Korin: Ethanol is better than gasoline. It may not be perfect but it is better than the status quo. And recent studies show that there is a positive energy balance. You can also make ethanol from sugar cane. The U.S. imposes a tariff on ethanol imports. Most ethanol sold in the U.S. is made from corn. I don’t like any subsidies. I think every fuel should compete on its own. But ethanol is a perfectly valid fuel.
Look, this is a deployment issue. It’s about getting technology that’s already out there [to be implemented]; it’s a political will issue.