Junior Courtney Payne invited a panel of experts to campus last week to weigh in on the future of cars. This future, they all agreed, would have to be one in which a variety of fuels were available on the market.
The three guests came at the issue from different sectors. Ben Burke ’99 is a geologist with Noble Energy, Inc., a natural gas company in Denver, Colo. Tom Twist is the sustainability officer for the Chewonki Foundation, an educational nonprofit with an environmental focus, based in Wiscasset, Maine. And Mark Rosenblatt is the advisor and founder of several organizations that are trying to open the transportation market to competitive fuels.
With several other like-minded students (including Alithea McFarlane ’14, Anna Hall ’15 and Margaret Lindeman ’15), Payne is actively trying to “bring the environmental discussion to a broad group of students,” she said. The subject of cars has a broad appeal because we all need to get to places, and we all mostly use cars to do so. Payne said she wanted to organize a panel with people who could shed light on different aspects of the automobile industry.
While all of the panelists agreed that the oil industry serves as the main hindrance to the future of automobiles, they offered different approaches to the problem.
Rosenblatt noted that currently the world requires more barrels of oil a year than it can produce, and that these numbers will continue to move in opposite directions. “We can’t produce our way out of this problem,” he said, “and the next barrel we take out is always going to be more expensive than the last.” As an advisor to the nonpartisan Fuel Freedom Foundation, Rosenblatt sees promise in fuel alternatives. “We are at a moment in history where there are truly cheaper and cleaner alternatives to oil,” he said.
We are at a moment in history where there are truly cheaper and cleaner alternatives to oil.” Mark Rosenblatt P’14
Twist agreed that fuel alternatives are the most immediate solution to rising gas prices and deepening environmental degradation. He said that at the Chewonki Foundation, students experiment with ethanol and biodiesel production, making fuels from vegetable oil or animal fat. The school also has one of the first renewable hydrogen projects in the country. “Biofuels are…what is in our cars right now,” Twist said.
Coming at the issue as a geologist, Burke said he seeks to maximize production from each individual oil well instead of trying to draw new ones. He also wants to reduce side emissions from natural gas extractions. “Anything that escapes is not only lost profits to the shareholders, but is also bad for the environment,” he said.
The biggest issue at the moment is the inelasticity of the oil industry, Rosenblatt said, which is a remnant from the oil monopoly that rose up in the early 1920s. The Fuel Freedom Foundation is working to remove barriers to competition in the fuel market. “We are trying to open up the regulation, so that alternative fuels can actually come to the market,” which Rosenblatt acknowledge will be challenging. “We’ve had bills in Congress since 2006 that have never gotten out of committee,” he said.
While the fuel market is slowing down immediate progress, all panelists said they have high hopes for the future of cars. “Electric hybrid cars are the ultimate solution,” Rosenblatt said. “The technology just isn’t there yet, but it will compete in the future.”
After the panel, Rosenblatt talked to Payne about making the panel discussion an annual event because these issues are so important. “It’s good to hear the questions the students have,” he said.