THE CURRENT synfuels stampede is official Washington's version of tank-topping - a momentary eruption of the herd instinct based on yesterday's news and today's apprehensions. Fortunately, the nation's gasoline lines are already diminishing in response to improving news, marginally better fuel supplies and the recovery of public composure.
Our best interests now will be served if the synfuels line on Capitol Hill dissipates and if President Carter, if he is to avoid yet another bad idea, forswears support for the synfuels stampede in his televised speech scheduled for tonight.
To be sure, synthetic fuels produced from heavy oils, tar sands, shale or coal will someday be as commonplace as imitation brick fireplaces. The energy appetites of industrial societies, the prodigious deposits of these substitutes that are available and our existing technical knowledge virtually guarantee this. But what will happen someday is not the issue.
The question is whether, on this side of the horizon, a $60 billion to $150 billion program to turn out 2 million to 4 million barrels a day of synthetic fuels would accomplish any of its backers' aims. The answer, despite all the rhetoric and breast-beating, is that it wouldn't.
A crash program of this kind would have virtually no impact on the OPEC oil cartel's power in the 1980s and little impact in the 1990s. It would not significantly enhance our national security or our energy independence. It would not lower the current high world oil price or appreciably slow future price increases. Most important, it would not reduce our vulnerability to Iranian-type oil supply interruptions resulting from political instability, which are currently at the heart of our problem.
Yes, there may well be reason for Washington to promote a few demonstration synfuel plants at present, and there are other important steps we can take. But the last thing we need is a multibillion-dollar illusion to satisfy our national macho, to stroke ourselves with the mistaken belief that, finally, we are "doing something" about the energy problem.
What's happened amid the current synfuels euphoria is that many inconvenient facts have been ignored. The proposed plants, for example, wouldn't come off some Department of Energy cookie cutter. They would require massive engineering and construction feats for "First of a kind" projects.
Coal-liquids and shale-plant technologies, feed-stock characteristics and site potentials vary so widely that they are not likely to become standardized any faster than light-water nuclear reactors have been. Yet there are only a handful of world-scale engineering firms with the resources and specialized manpower to handle detailed, final plant designs and construction management.
These plants would also result in major enviornmental assaults, involving many air and water pollutants and, in the case of shale, the disposal of massive volumes of toxic tailings. Even a fast-track approval process by environmental regulators would likely take two to three years because of the irrational complexities of Clean Air Act pre-construction requirements.
In addition, simultaneous construction of 10 to 25 such plants would severly tax the skilled manpower and manufacturing capacity for a long list of critical components and sub-systems. Finally, we should not ignore the experience of the only large-scale syncrude plant functioning today, the 130,000-barrel Canadian tar sands facility: It has been plagued with start-up problems for nearly a year and is currently producing at substantially below rated
tall this should make it clear that a massive synfuels program authorized this summer would not affect the world oil price by so much as a dime before 1987. We would be fortunate to have 500,000 barrels a day of reliable output by the end of the next decade. That would be less than a 1 percent addition to the 50 million-barrel-a-day world petroleum market - not much of a lever on oil prices. Even if we managed to turn out 2 million barrels a day by the early 1990s - which would take an estimated 40 synfuel plants - it would increase world supply by only 3 percent, again with only a modest impact on price.
Whatever the long-run prospects, then, a major U.S. synfuels program would do practically nothing about OPEC, and precious little about the world oil price, for at least a decade and a half.
Or you might want to consider the cost-benefit equation another way: A 2-mile-a-gallon increase in the average fuel economy of the U.S. auto-fleet in 1985 would equal the annual output of 10 synfuel plants. Estimates v. reality
Another misleading notion of the synfuels crusaders is that the world oil price now is rising fast enough and production costs will be low enough for coal and shale liquids to be competitive by the time the synfuel plants are operating. The ease of taking giant risks with other people's money, of course, often makes bureaucrats and politicians overlook critical distinctions that private investors can ignore only at the peril of losing their own money.
Private investors, for example, do not believe the cost estimates derived from their own DOE-financed pilot projects. There is a world of difference between back-of-the-envelope estimates drawn from small-scale experiments and the detailed engineering specifications needed for full-scale plants.
The experience of the Colony Group that planned to build a surface retort shale plant shortly after the first oil embargo is instructive. The back-of-the-envelope estimate before November, 1973, was under $7 a barrel. By the time the detailed engineering specifications had been completed in August, 1975, the break-even price had jumped to $22 a barrel. That figure is now nearly $30 a barrel, and that doesn't include addition expenses stemming from toxic-substance and environmental regulations.
There should be no illusions, therefore, that most synfuels would cost anything less than the equivalent of $30 to $40 a barrel of crude oil - and that is in real dollars. If we keep inflating our economy at 10 percent a year, the nominal dollar cost would double to the $60 to $80 range before 1985.
Indeed, the naive assumption that the world oil price is rapidly closing in on the range at which synfuels will become competitive stems from our habit of measuring the world oil price in terms of the counterfeit money we print at home. What matters to foreign oil sellers, naturally, is not the nominal dollar price but the real terms of trade - the command over western steel, engineering services and food-stuffs held by each exported barrel of a wasting assets.
In the context of that buying power, a substantial share of the oil price increase this year was necessary just to restore the terms of trade established in the fall of 1975. From then until last December, the real OPEC oil price-adjusted for dollar-exchange value loss and western inflation - declined by a full 20 percent. If the new $19 average price sticks, by year-end the real price of oil will have risen by less than 9 cents a gallon over the past four years.
In short, it would take a 4 percent annual increase in the real oil price over the next 15 years to close the present competitive gap. In light of the prospects for new production outside OPEC and continued fuel substitution and energy efficiencies around the world, that rate of real price escalation is by no means guaranteed. Scratch another argument. The Iranian syndrome
What the synfuel stampeders fail to recognize is that our current vulnerability does not stem from price pronouncements following the theatrics of oil ministers' meeting in Geneva. The real dangers for us are unplanned and undesired convulsions in the producing areas themselves - the Iranian syndrome - and our failure to be prepared for them. The synfuels panacea would do almost nothing to ease this problem.
Our vulnerability lies in the structure of the world oil production system, not in our absolute level of daily imports. There is simply no spare production capacity available now anywhere in the world, with the questionable exception of Saudi Arabia. This means that the mammoth free world oil supply system is balanced precariously on a "ragged edge." Any significant production curtailment will touch off a worldwide scramble for suddenly scarcer supplies, with enormous upward pressure on prices until production is restored or a new price equilibrium is reached.
The key question here is whether the proposed new synfuel plants, if and when they are ever built, would be held in reserve as spare capacity or would simply become part of the word's base capacity.
It is inconceivable to me that synfuel crusaders intend for these multibillion-dollar giants to stand idle most of the time, waiting for a bomb-thrower in Baghdad to require a throttle-up to full production. Just a million barrels a day of stand-by synfuel capacity would cost nearly $100 million a week to maintain in idle plants, even at today's optimistic estimates of capital costs.
Given the determination of politicians and others to keep plants operating and feeding local economies, it seems much more probable that any new synfuel production would be immediately absorbed in a fuel-hungry world marketplace. True, such production would back out a modest equivalent volume of U.S. oil imports. But the effect would be to lower marginally the average world price and thereby increase global consumption, rather than to create spare production capacity abroad and stand-by protection against sudden supply disruptions.
In a world in which the marginal sources of petroleum supply carry an exceedingly high cost, the only way to get off the "ragged edge" is with low-cost storage.
Crude petroleum can be stored in salt domes and other geological formations for substantially less than $1 a barrel. An internationally coordinated, 2-billion-barrel storage program for all the non-communist industrialized nation that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) would cover a production outage of up to 5.5 million barrels a day for year - or year-or two years' worth of last winter's net loss from the Iranian interruption.
Spread over annual petroleum consumption in the industrial world, that amounts to an insurance premium of less than a half penny a gallon. Admittedly, periodic storage filling would subtract from current consumption and raise oil prices. But the alternative - with or without synfuels - is in effect to own a flammable house without fire insurance. If only a fraction of the political energies now being expended to grease the synfuels pork barrel were devoted to a domestic and international stockpile program, our energy security would be substantially greater for the rest of the century. Paying the price
This not all we can do to ease our oil problems. First and foremost among other practical solutions is the need to pay the full world price for petroleuM, particularly gasoline. Regardless of the rhetoric of so-called consumer spokesmen, consumption responds powerfully to price. In the five years from 1973 through 1978, energy consumption in the OECD area dropped by a staggering 5.5 million barrels a day relative to the pre-embargo relationship between real economic growth and energy demand. Moreover, these efficiencies will persist and grow over time simply because of the long turnover cycle for the major energy-consuming capital stock - homes, autos and industrial plants.
We also must realize that there are numerous ways to use our most abundant domestic fuel resource - coal - far more cheaply than via multibillion-dollar liquefaction plants. Substantial amounts of residual and heating oils could be freed up from the steam-generation sector for transportation and chemical feedstock use if we were to adopt sensible sulphur-control rules for direct coal combustion. Moreover, clean coal conversion technologies are already commercially proven and will increasingly penetrate industrial and commercial markets in the years ahead.
Finally, we need to get off our home-canning kick. The best prospects for moderately priced liquid hydrocarbons do not lie in the coal of Appalachia or the shale of Colorado. Instead, they lie in the vast heavy oil and tar sand reserves of the Western hemisphere and in unexplored sedimentary basins throughout the non-OPEC developing world. The development of these former resources is already proceeding apace, with two Canadian tar sands plants already on-stream and three more on the way.
In the latter case, there remains a political and institutional barrier: the reluctance of developing nations to share their irreplaceable hydorcarbon resources with the likes of Exxon or Mobil. But U.S. dollars invested in the world Bank program designed to bridge this barrier are likely to do far more to improve our future energy condition than all the grain ethanol, solar power towers and coal liquid plants that the congressional pork barrel can possibly build at home.
There may well be a persuasive rationale for a few demonstration synfuels plants at present. But the suspicion that these plants are not yet competitive could be readily tested simply by taking bids at a guaranteed purchase price of no more than $5 a barrel above the world price over the life of the plants. If such a limited arrangement does not coax private capital out of the banks, it would be good reason to keep billions in public capital in the Treasury.
Washington's political idea of the hour is to start a massive program to produce synthetic fuels. The Congress appears enamored of the notion, and the president may join the crusade this evening. But is is a wrongheaded and expensive idea that would not appreciably ease our energy problems, according to Republican Rep. Dave Stockman of Michigan.