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April 26-May 2, 2006

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Car Culture

We Are All Poets

By Novella Carpenter

I NEED to spend more time with poets. Last weekend, I hung out with some young poets—hot for words, for performing their work, for building up their community. They were erecting a teepee on some land on the coast, getting ready to plant a farm and live simply on the land. Though I've mostly dismissed a rural lifestyle for myself, this concept of poetry, fresh vegetables and surviving on nothing seemed wonderful.

The one thing the poets told me they needed, though, was a car with good fuel mileage. Poets are poor, and driving to and from the country to haul supplies was going to cost a pretty penny. I suggested the usual: a Honda Civic, a Toyota Corolla, a VW Golf. Biodiesel or a fuel-efficient hybrid didn't seem within their budget, and a horse or a bike wasn't practical on those shoulderless roads.

With the price of a barrel of oil hovering near $70 already, and the onset of the official summer driving season (when demand is very high), I'm predicting that gas prices are going to reach more than $100 per barrel this summer. These skyrocketing prices will make all of us feel like poor poets at the gas pump.

Which brings me to what I really fear: alternatives to petroleum. I've spilt a lot of ink on ethanol, biodiesel, electric cars, even hydrogen fuel cell cars in this column, and I still believe these are all somewhat viable options to petroleum. Depending on how the alternative fuel is made and used, I call these "lesser-evil" replacement fuels—but there are a few very evil replacement fuels that have me worried.

One of these Darth Vaders is coal. An article last week in The New York Times said that as oil prices increase the likelihood of coal being used as a petroleum substitute increases. Price blockades that previously held back coal development are cleared at $70, $80 and $90 barrels of oil. The story reported that coal will make former petrol products like plastic bags, acetic acid and fertilizer.

The story mentioned a process called Fischer-Trope, which turns coals into, gulp, diesel fuel. Now for those of you holier-than-thous yelling about the imperfections of crop-based fuels, imagine a country using coal to power cars, trucks and trains. Dirty indeed. I visited a coal plant in West Virginia once, and the people who worked there suffered from black lung, and even they complained to me that coal was bad for the environment. Coal mining and plants are responsible for arsenic in groundwater in addition to polluting the air.

There's a lot of coal in the ground, too. In the United States alone, there are 254 billion tons in the ground; China holds 114 billion tons—leaving the two biggest users of energy holding reserves that they may need soon. But how much coal will have to be burned into the atmosphere in order to "direct liquefy coal into fuel?" It's madness.

Another scary fuel that may come to market with increased petroleum oil prices is shale oil. A close cousin to coal, shale is an underground material that contains kerogen, which can be distilled into petroleum. According to, there are an estimated 1.6 trillion barrels of oil held within the world's shale reserves. This is equivalent to the world's remaining oil reserves, so shale has been touted as a substitute once petroleum runs out or becomes incredibly expensive.

The problem with turning shale into oil, as with liquefying coal into diesel fuel, is the enormous input of energy required to get the final product. Shale is either strip-mined or taken out in situ. Mining sounds like what it is—a desecration of land—along with the added inefficiency of trucking materials to a production facility. Shell Oil has been toying with in situ, which involves heating shale in the ground for four years until it's ready to be pumped out like oil. Imagine that four-year energy bill!

Again, this is using more energy in order to get energy, shrinking the output. We can bet that this energy is fundamentally wasteful, makes a gross negative impact on the environment and people and will still be incredibly expensive. Starting this summer, and the rest of this century, we'll all be feeling the pinch.

Contact Novella Carpenter or send a letter to the editor about this story.

Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.