There are two stories today that may impact the future of gas prices. First, a huge oil field has been discovered in North America, and second, scientists have genetically engineered corn to break down its own cell walls. Well and good, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
The oil discovery is important because it could, theoretically, reduce our dependence on foreign oil sources and increase our supply, thus driving down costs. However, the eco nuts and the NIMBYs will slow things down (if not bring it to a screeching halt). They’ll complain about everything from the disruption of some ant colonies to the ugly derricks pumping oil all day, and they’ll hold things up in the courts as long as they can.
I’m not a big fan of the idea of tearing up the land for a fuel we’re trying to move away from anyway, but the need for oil is immediate. The nation’s fleets of cars and trucks aren’t going away any time soon, even if Honda were to miraculously put a cheap, reliable, zero-emissions, solar-powered car on the market tomorrow. The nuts and bolts of our economy are tied to sending money overseas to people who could cut off our supply with the turn of a valve. Oil prices are driving up transportation costs, transportation costs are driving up the costs of goods, and we’re not seeing corresponding increases in our payrolls. I’m no economist so I’m not going to say it’s the number one factor for the recession we’re in, but you can’t tell me the economy wouldn’t recover some if people were able to go back to paying even $2.00/gallon for gas.
So it’s ethanol to the rescue, right? The biggest problem facing ethanol right now is the energy expense in breaking down the cellulose to get the energy out of corn and other biofuel sources. Researchers have been trying a number of methods, most involving bacteria and enzymes from various sources, both natural and engineered. In the story I linked above, lab rats managed to cram a cow gene into corn to make it develop an enzyme that breaks the corn itself down. Rather than introducing enzymes in the production cycle, the corn suicides and eliminates that step altogether.
This is great news for the future, presuming it doesn’t continue to impact corn pricing as a food staple. When feed becomes more expensive, meat will become more expensive and we’ll be trading rising oil costs for rising food costs. In theory, anyway. It will also be some time before this goes into widespread production, and it doesn’t solve the problem of the existing fleets of vehicles. There aren’t enough ethanol vehicles on the market to impact the oil supply and do anything about gas prices.
End result: we’ll be bending over at the pumps for the foreseeable future.
How’s that for a cheery thought of the day?