Flex-fuel first, electrification second: Zubrin

My Clean Break column today is based on an interview with Robert Zubrin, the author of Energy Victory and the engineer that has been most vocal about sending humans to Mars. Zubrin’s main thesis is that the Organization for the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has been manipulating and benefitting from high oil prices and that this monopoly grip on the fossil-fuel market must be broken. He wants legislators to mandate that every new vehicle manufactured have flex-fuel capability, a move that would boost investment in and availability of biofuels and essentially water down OPEC’s influence.

Now, this is quite the contentious argument given it seems more focused on energy security than on sustainability. There’s no shortage of headlines trashing the environmental benefits of ethanol and emphasizing the impact on food prices and, in some cases, the negative environmental effects of growing corn for fuel. Mandating flex-fuel in all new vehicles would merely amplify the problems being discussed today, critics say.

I have to admit, I’m torn on this one. I see the value of biofuels, assuming our increased production of the fuel can be done sustainably, guided by regulation, and assuming we can transition quickly to cellulosic ethanol. The question is, would a flex-fuel mandate create such a huge, instant demand that all rules go out the window in order to meet this demand? Would it require we import ethanol from other countries where environmental track records are poor and beyond the oversight of North American governments?

Zubrin, I point out in the column, isn’t opposed to electric cars or plug-in hybrids — he’s actually a fan. But he also points out the reality that these vehicles are at least a few years away and that they will come with a hefty premium. Flex-fuel cars, on the other hand, could be manufactured tomorrow and would cost about $100 per vehicle. Zubrin eventually sees us driving flex-fuel plug-in hybrid vehicles — the ultimate vehicle configuration, many say.

I should point out that WWF came out this month with an excellent report titled “Plugged In: The End of the Oil Age,” which argues that the electrification of transportation is necessary to break oil’s monopoly and effectively tackle climate change. You’ll notice from my column that I cite the report, which doesn’t dispute the need for biofuels, but sees biofuels as a complement to electric cars — again, that whole concept of the flex-fuel plug-in hybrid. The report is well worth the read.

I’m curious to get your views on this issue. Should we take dramatic action now by mandating flex-fuel technology, and then go down the path of making these flex-fuel vehicles plug-in hybrids? Or, should we go directly to the plug-in hybrids and all-electrics and forget biofuels altogether?