THE INSIDE MAN

Better Law for Better Fuel

Better Law for Better Fuel image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: | posted April 20, 2011 19:25

Trapped by the Law

Stew in a pot

The cause of today's rising energy prices is a stew of factors that are the result of Nature's fickleness, Human behavior due to speculation, prosperity, etc., expanding population, diminishing natural resources, technological advancement and of course, the all powerful Law of Supply and Demand.

Pay as you go

We cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we want clean air, we will have to pay for more expensive fuel blends and until the time technology discovers compensatory products, we are stuck with bio fuel additives that burn faster, raising fuel consumption in the case of gasoline.

Good intentions

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Motives like a greener future and energy security are all noble when legislating laws mandating bio-fuel blends and subsidies helping moribund or budding domestic bio-fuel refiners.

Like a cancer's cure

But sometimes, like chemotherapy, the cure is more painful than the disease. We end up making a bad situation worse. The problem lies in the static nature of some laws; the bio fuels law in particular. Having mandated the specific additive - ethanol and CME [coconut methyl ester] - our refineries are bound by law to keep adding more and more of these chemicals, regardless if they cost more per liter than the base fuel. Regardless if technology can create better, cleaner and, more importantly to the consumer hit by rising prices, cheaper additives.

Now, the effect

Then we also have to look at the effect. All the published urban figures show no improvement in air quality. The greenies will argue that all the more reason we have to put more ethanol and CME and give it more time. But the fact remains that only newish cars that guzzle bio-ethanol are in the minority. The nation's fleet still runs on dirty diesel engines using dirty diesel. But the 4-wheeled motor vehicle is not the biggest culprit. The biggest and most prevalent polluters are the tricycles.

Tricycles go scott free

In that sector, you will see another law at work: the law of least resistance. As car, truck, bus and jeepney emissions and traffic are regulated, the enterprising public gravitate to the unregulated sector. Witness the explosion in the population of pedicabs and tricycles. Convenient but not cheap, their presence anywhere is good and bad. Its a go anywhere convenience, even if riding passengers have to assume the fetal position. Never mind if a nocturnal ride costs more than a solo passenger taxi ride in an air con Vios. Never mind if their noise alone attribute to depressed property values as they destroy any neighborhood's peace and quiet.

Menace to society

Anywhere you find tricycles in this country, you will find unruly traffic and "dangerous" roads as accidents happen when overloaded slow moving tricycles are prevalent. Whatever passes for regulations vary depending on the vested interest and level of expertise of the barangay chair or municipal council. Unless drastically regulated, there is no stopping their phenomenal growth as tricycle incomes are hardly taxed, the public is willingly fleeced/robbed and public road safety deteriorates.

But try, at least

Still, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try. The problem in drafting bio duels house bills or tricycle ordinances is when you have lawmakers and technocrats drafting laws and implementing rules and regulations respectively, with little or zero understanding of the technical issues. Nothing wrong with that. That's what hiring consultants and experts are for. But then who decides who is an expert? There are smoothies who impress the ignorant with mouthfuls of facts, factoids, detail, minutiae and jargon. Espousing easily obtainable internet scientific facts, chosen to serve an agenda without the benefit of training in the thinking sciences [as opposed to opinion making] does not make one a scientist nor a scientific expert.

Advocacy

There are consultants or experts who have an agenda, a vested interest or an advocacy. Again nothing wrong with being cause oriented. But they should not pretend to be impartial and should immediately expose their advocacies for the sake of openness and honesty, their biases laid bare. If they are lobbyists or green advocates, say so. Oil industry experts speak their technicalities without denying where their pay check comes from. Which doesn't mean that they do not have any valid expertise to share.

Charlatans, preachers and the Bible

These so-called experts are like books, like the Bible. A compendium of knowledge, but entirely useless or even confusing if one is not equipped to interpret it properly. Consider a text book on Calculus. You can't understand it unless you understand Greek letters, Arabic numbers and flow rate concepts of mathematics. And if you can't interpret it, its just a pile of knowledge. Knowledge alone is not intelligence. Wisdom is how you put together and use intelligence.

Shot ourselves in the foot

By mandating set percentages of bio fuels, the law has made our fuel more expensive than it should be as ethanol and CME [Coconut Methyl Ester] are becoming expensive too. The problem lies in that sugar, the source of ethanol, and coconut, the source of CME, also double as food. That wouldn't be a problem if we have an excess of sugar and coconut. Because of long periods of low prices of sugar and coconut, farmers reduced the land planted to these crops. Now, with the world's expanding food needs, the result is upward pressure on food prices. But you can't create and harvest surplus sugar and coconut overnight.

Clumsy superpower

This was aggravated by the US's erroneous move to subsidize corn based ethanol production because of energy security paranoia. This is in contrast to the world's most efficient producer of ethanol, Brazil. Brazil's production of sugar is way in excess of its domestic and export needs. Moreover, their ethanol industry uses only the by-product of their huge sugar production. In the US, corn is mainly used for animal feed. When much corn production was shifted to ethanol production, there was a shortage of animal feed, resulting in rising prices of beef as American cows are corn fed. That's not all. Because of generous subsidies for corn based ethanol refineries, too much production flooded the market with a glut, bankrupting some of the subsidized ethanol refineries.

Our own hands tied behind our backs

Right now, we can't enjoy newer and cheaper fuel additives because the law demands the refiners use only ethanol and CME. This is tantamount to legislating against progress. Imagine if 30 years ago, Engineering schools banned calculators just because they wanted to support the slide rule industry? How many even know how a slide rule looks like? Then the lap top wouldn't have been invented?

We've been had

Filipino public, we'd been had. By lawmakers that force us to buy expensive fuel additives when we can do just as well if it wasn't forced on us by rule of law. Lawmakers, you'd been had, drowned by the gobbledygook of charlatans with all the persuasive passions of a trained dramatist. We only hope those pseudo scientists also pay through the nose for their fuel or energy or transport.

Cheaper fuel today?

We would not be surprised if we can enjoy lower fuel prices if only our gasoline and diesel did not have very expensive ethanol and CME, which now cost far more per liter of unleaded. We've tied our hands with this one as the law deprived the industry from using cheaper and better blending agents, depriving the consumer of the flexibility to choose our fuels during oil crises and the economic stresses we face today.

We've had enough

Rather than go into another round of populist bills creating another OPSF [oil price stabilization fund], a luxury that even sensible oil exporting nations have dumped as a harmful failure, we should repeal the bio-fuels law and instead simply target Euro V or Euro IV standard fuels and engines for ALL internal combustion engines and leave the achievement of clean fuels to science and technology - not legislation. And the next time drafters of the law and ordinances invite consultants, the consultants should be vetted for their beliefs, biases and advocacies so the drafters of the law are not misled. There's nothing wrong if well meaning individuals would want to share their beliefs, knowledge and expertise. They just have to honestly identify themselves and not pretend to be impartial. What matters is not what lawmakers brand as expert or vested interest just because he/she works for the oil industry or the green lobby. Its about tapping expertise. And stop making laws as if technology has no chance of improving our lives.