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Oil spill's energy lesson for Obama

Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller, author of the new textbook "Physics and Technology for Future Presidents," says Barack Obama could learn a lesson from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Using offshore oil to solve America's liquid energy security issue poses a bigger problem than previously thought, he said.

You won't find the professor's answer to the problem in the back of the book, but it can be summarized in two words: natural gas.

"The thing the president really needs to know is that we have huge supplies of natural gas; that although it's not liquid, compressed natural gas is an alternative fuel for U.S. automobiles. And U.S. policy has not taken advantage of that in any significant way," Muller told me today.

Natural-gas drilling is fraught with controversy, but in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, policymakers and energy-industry executives may well shift their focus from offshore oil to onshore natural gas, Muller said. That's not something Obama is likely to talk about when he visits the Louisiana coast to assess spill damage on Friday. He's more likely to play up his administration's new steps to go slow on offshore drilling. Nevertheless, Muller said the oil-spill crisis provides Obama with a golden opportunity to widen the debate over America's energy options.

Multiple-choice questions
Muller addresses energy policy, climate change and many other hot-button political issues in his textbook, which is an academic spin-off of "Physics for Future Presidents," a book that's geared for less scientifically inclined audiences. The 532-page textbook covers twice as much material as the earlier book, and includes all the features you'd expect from a classroom text (including multiple-choice and essay questions at the end of each chapter). Muller says the text already been adopted by 15 universities in the United States, plus another university in Pakistan.

"The strangest place it's been used [as a textbook] is actually not in Pakistan, but in San Quentin," Muller said. He's heard tales of inmates at the California prison sitting around in the exercise yard, discussing physics. "That's the one place where I guarantee there's no future president coming out," he joked.

Muller said he's heard that first lady Michelle Obama promised to pass along a copy of the book to her husband, and he's gotten feedback from "very high-level people" in the administration (though he's not naming names). He's also proud of the warm reviews that "PFFP" has received from the left side of the political spectrum (Huffington Post) as well as the right side (National Review).

"To get good reviews from both sides on issues that are as contentious as terrorism, nuclear war and global warming is very gratifying," he said. "This is stuff that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Physics is nonpartisan."

Pros of natural gas
So here's Muller's take on post-spill energy policy:

"When you're talking about energy, there are really three issues that get confused: global warming, local pollution - that's the issue that has thrust itself in here - and liquid energy security," he said. The United States has plenty of fossil-fuel energy reserves, in the form of coal and gas, but the challenge is how to put those reserves to use, along with energy alternatives, while addressing those three key issues.

The energy industry had thought increased offshore-oil drilling could boost America's liquid-fuel supplies, even though it wouldn't really address the global-warming issue. Muller said "the crisis caused by this spill reminds us that there's another dimension to liquid fuel that is bad for the environment" - that is, the potential for pollution on a regional scale.

The way Muller sees it, compressed natural gas offers a viable alternative for fueling the nation's automobiles. The greenhouse-gas impact of natural gas consumption is slightly less than that of burning gasoline. Natural gas contains more energy per pound than gasoline, although it's not as dense. America's energy infrastructure might have to be reworked so that drivers "fill 'er up" from a natural-gas pipe rather than from a gasoline hose. Natural-gas-fueled autos might have to have a shorter range than gasoline-fueled cars. But Muller thinks the problems are solvable.

"Natural-gas automobiles are much closer to widespread use than the president's favorite alternative technology, electric cars," he said. "I believe the physics says that his alternative is a poor choice."

There's far less energy in a pound of car batteries than there is in a pound of gasoline or natural gas, even when you're talking about the high-tech batteries that go into a Tesla or a Chevy Volt. "This is not a realistic alternative for the bulk of the American people," Muller said. "It will work only for wealthy Americans."

Cons of natural gas
Natural gas is not without its own serious environmental issues: In addition to the greenhouse-gas impact, some gas-extraction companies have developed a bad reputation, as shown in the award-winning documentary "Gasland."

"What they do in order to extract natural gas is, they'll drill horizontal wells into shale, and then they'll pump water down and crack the rock [to release the gas]. You have this water that comes back up, and what do you do with it? You could clean it, but in the past the industry has not done a good job of doing that," Muller said.

Muller said he'd like to see Obama put together a study group to take a hard look at energy alternatives, building on the momentum generated by oil-spill outrage. All the options should be covered, including an intelligent approach to natural-gas drilling. "The drilling has to be accompanied by legislation that will assure that local communities can benefit, and that environmental damage will not be done," Muller said.

I'm still partial to approaches that go beyond fossil fuels - including terrestrial solar and wind, biomass, bacteria and algae, "negawatts" and nuclear, even space solar power and fusion in the long term. But Muller is correct that power portability has to be part of the equation. It'd be great to see revolutionary new battery technologies and ethanol/methanol initiatives, but maybe natural gas deserves some consideration as well, at least as a short-term alternative. What do you think? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Bonus round: I'm including four multiple-choice questions from "Physics and Technology for Future Presidents" below. Take a crack at giving the correct answers in your comment (for example, "1:A, 2:B, 3:C, 4:D"), and I'll weigh in with the answer key on Friday.

1. Which of the following contains the most energy per gram?

  • A. TNT
  • B. Chocolate chip cookies
  • C. Battery
  • D. Uranium

2. Compare the energy in a kilogram of gasoline to that in a kilogram of flashlight batteries:

  • A. The gasoline has about 400 times as much energy.
  • B. The gasoline has about 10 times as much energy.
  • C. The gasoline has about 70 times as much energy.
  • D. They cannot be honestly compared, since one stores power and the other stores energy.

3. Coal reserves in the United States are expected to last for:

  • A. Hundreds of years.
  • B. Three or four decades.
  • C. 72 years.
  • D. Less than a decade.

4. The efficiency of inexpensive solar cells is closest to:

  • A. 1 percent.
  • B. 12 percent.
  • C. 65 percent.
  • D. 100 percent.

Update for 4 p.m. ET May 28: I've added the book's answers to the questions as a comment below (#32).

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