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'Petropoly' is worth a read

A new book written by supporters of fuel choice came out in 2012.
By Holly Jessen | April 15, 2013

Several months ago, when I found out I’d again be writing a blog for the Ethanol Producer Magazine website, I started thinking about the types of topics I’d write about. Then I got an email about the release of the book, “Petropoly” by Anne Korin and Gal Luft. I responded and asked for a copy to review for my blog.

“Petropoly” isn’t my first exposure to Korin or Luft. I heard Korin speak at the 2010 American Coalition for Ethanol conference in Kansas City. I was quite impressed with her presence and passion. I got a signed copy of “Turning Oil into Salt,” co-written by Luft and Korin and first published in 2009. I have to say, I read that book from cover to cover on the plane home. That led to interviews with both of them and publication of a feature story I wrote for the June 2011 issue of EPM.

While Korin and Luft see positives in ethanol, they support fuel choice, meaning they’d like to see a law passed requiring that vehicles sold in the U.S. would have the ability to operate on mixed fuels containing 85 percent ethanol, methanol, biodiesel or another alternative energy source. There is a section of the first book called, “Ethanol: the fuel the pundits love to hate,” in which the authors “deconstruct the debate, separate the fallacies from the truth and try to squeeze out some of the venom.” The authors devoted several pages in that first book to debunking myths about ethanol.

When I heard they had come out with another book, I was very interested in reading it. Billed as a sequel to “Turning Oil into Salt,” the new book certainly held my interest. “Petropoly,” which has the subhead “The collapse of America’s Energy Security Paradigm,” lays out the case that politicians “have been barking up the wrong tree when it comes to oil.” The U.S. has increased its domestic drilling for oil and increased vehicle fuel efficiency to use less oil but in the meantime, oil prices have continued to skyrocket, the book points out.

One section of the book that really caught my attention is called “The era of fuel choice: 1890-1914.” Although there weren’t many cars during these years, the book points out that competition among vehicle technologies was impressive—unlike today in the U.S. when petroleum powered vehicles dominate the marketplace. Back then, only 22 percent of vehicles were powered by liquid fuels—the remainder got from point A to point B on steam or electrical power. Kind of blows your mind doesn’t it?

The authors also talk about the Model T, which could run on gasoline, kerosene and alcohol, an early flex-fuel vehicle. However, a $2.08 per gallon “sin tax” on alcohol, which didn’t distinguish between the kind you drink and the kind your car runs on, was passed in the 1860s. Then President Roosevelt got Congress to get rid of the alcohol tax because he said it was unfair and was used to crush out competition to the Oil Standard Company. When that happened, alcohol became 30 percent cheaper than gas and, as a consequence, a very popular fuel. Of course, that’s not the end of the story. As the book puts it, the pendulum soon swung back, in favor of gasoline again. It’s a fascinating story.

Then there’s chapter 7, which is titled, “The fuel we love to hate.” This time, Korin and Luft devote a whole chapter to the subject of ethanol. Again, they propose opening up the fuel market to ethanol and other alternative fuels such as methanol—so that “no fuel is barred from competition—and let the market decide.” They also recap their thoughts on the many myths and attacks against the fuel.

The bottom line is, ethanol industry supporters may not agree with everything in the books written by Korin and Luft. But there’s no doubt that they are thought provoking and interesting. If you haven’t had a chance to read one or both of them, I highly recommend it.

On another note, thanks so much to all of you that completed EPM’s salary survey, which is now closed. We had a total of 367 respondents, beating out the number that responded to the last survey and topping our goal significantly. I especially appreciated those of you that responded to my blog by sending me an email so you could complete the survey. Watch for the results in the June issue of the magazine!