Why the US needs Electric Cars: Saudi Arabia threatens Pivot away from US

The royal family of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy with no constitution and no elected legislature, is in a snit about US foreign policy. King Abdullah doesn’t like even the mild American criticism of the Sunni Bahrain monarchy’s brutal crackdown on the majority Shiite community in that country. He is furious that President Obama went with the Russian plan to sequester Syria’s chemical weapons rather than bombing Damascus. He is petrified of a breakthrough in American and Iranian relations that might permit Iran to keep its nuclear enrichment program and allow Tehran to retain a nuclear breakout capacity, which would deter any outside overthrow of the Iranian regime. Those are the stated discontents leaked by Saudi uber-hawk Bandar Bin Sultan.

Behind the scenes, another Saudi concern is that the US likes democracy too much. Washington ultimately backed the Arab upheavals that led to the fall of presidents for life in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Saudi Arabia hated this outbreak of popular politics and parliamentary competition. It connived with Egypt’s generals to roll back gains in Egypt in favor of more authoritarian rule. It has just cut off Yemen because the post-Saleh situation there isn’t developing its way. Only in Syria do the Saudis want regime change, and there it is because they want to weaken Iran and depose a Shiite ruling clique in favor of a fundamentalist Sunni one.

The Saudi royal family is looking for a different model of politics in the world, one where absolute monarchy and hard line Wahhabi fundamentalism wouldn’t look out of place. America is not it. They have been toying in Riyadh with a pivot to China. An unelected Communist Party that has taken the capitalist road and desperately needs Saudi petroleum has started to look good to the king. Beijing would make no annoying demands to open up Saudi politics. And if a Riyadh-Beijing axis could be established, Iran’s favored position with the Chinese might be cut back. Saudi Arabia is after all a much bigger oil producer and much less problematic as a trading partner.

Why should the US care if Saudi Arabia wants to abandon its special relationship with America? Oil.

The world produces about 90 million barrels of petroleum a day. Saudi Arabia produces about ten percent of that amount. And, it exports most of what it produces (unlike the US, which produces a similar amount but uses it all and half again as much). While there are small differences in the spot price of oil in various world markets, on the whole and by and large, petroleum is a single global market. Imagine several people in a hot tub filled with oil. If someone allows the oil to drain, the level will go down for everyone. Tub attendants with small canisters of oil could not refill it fast enough to stop the level from going down rapidly. But someone with a lot of oil who could dump it into the tub expeditiously could keep the level high. That someone is the Saudis. Because they are such a large exporter, they are a swing producer and have great influence on pricing.

The United States uses roughly 18.7 million barrels of oil a day, mainly for transportation. It now produces 12 million barrels a day of oil, ethanol and liquid hydrocarbons. That means it has to import a whopping 6.7 million barrels a day of oil this year. While US production has surged in recent years because of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), it is very far from being self-sufficient in fuel, and there is little early prospect of it being a net exporter of oil. Many fracked fields are thought to be shallow and might run out pretty quickly, and the enormous water use and environmental damage involved in the process has caused many countries, including France, to ban it. It would be foolish to bet the future of the United States on this flash in a pan. Not to mention that burning oil causes global warming and threatens to destabilize our climate and submerge cities like Miami.

Moreover, since oil is a single world market, it doesn’t really matter for security or economics solely that the US produces a lot of it. It also doesn’t matter that America gets relatively little oil directly from the Middle East any more. What matters is the world price, which is determined by global supply and demand. Note that when the US was only producing 8 million barrels a day of oil and other fuel liquids, a few years ago, the price of a barrel of oil was $33. Now it is around $100. Despite the surge in US production, the price is at a historic high, because China, India and other Asian countries are rapidly increasing their demand as they turn to having automobiles rather than riding bicycles. If there were another major supply interruption, the US would be as vulnerable today as in the 1970s– we would feel the shortages and higher prices just as would our allies, whom we would want to protect. Using petroleum as a fuel source, even if you produce a lot of it yourself, makes you dependent on other countries in myriad ways.

So if the Saudis were to start doing proprietary deals with China, locking in a 30 year supply at a particular price range, and if world demand went up (as it will) markedly, the US could end up being like the player in a game of musical chairs, who ends up without a chair. Despite its large domestic production, it still needs millions of barrels a day of imports. If the US economy starts roaring again, the need for imports would likely increase.

US energy security cannot be secured by fracking, which is polluting, dirty, and contributes to climate change (itself a challenge to American security), quite apart from its present inability actually to supply our fuel needs.

If the US wants to avoid being hostage to Saudi pique, and wants to avoid losing the game of musical chairs while China sits pretty, it needs to move quickly to electric cars fueled by solar panels and wind.

Most people don’t drive long distances every day. Even now, there is no reason for every middle class American who wants a new car not to get a Chevy Volt. The car is not expensive for what it is (it is a high-end sedan), and is positively cheap if you put solar panels on your roof and run it off the sun. Many other car makers are also introducing plug-in hybrids. We don’t have to deal with the Saudis and we don’t need dirty hydrocarbons or destructive fracking. Everyone with a Chevy Volt should proudly put an American flag bumper sticker on it. There is no more patriotic car on the road today.

With regard to global warming, at the moment, if you run your electric car for more than three years and if your electricity mix is no more than 40% coal, you would be carbon neutral in the fourth year. This takes into account carbon used to construct the car. Silly articles about electric cars that tell you how green they are by how much coal your utility uses in your state or country don’t take account of individual consumers’ ability to put solar panels on their homes. Likewise, how much carbon is used to build the car will change as factories themselves come to be fueled by wind and solar (something already happening in e.g. California). Another reason to buy a volt is to encourage Chevrolet to do more research and development and invest in EVs more, to ensure better batteries and to ease the transition in the next decade. The batteries are being eyed after the car’s natural life as a way to store solar energy for utilities, in which case its carbon footprint will go way down.

But with regard to national security, you’d be fuel-independent, i.e. Saudi-independent, from the moment you drove it off the lot.

Two big reasons to go rapidly to electric vehicles and solar and wind and wave power.

35 Responses

  1. Professor whilst I agree with you that electric cars would be wonderful they are just not going to happen until they are comparable with the combustion engine. Currently electric cars that aren’t like some kind of toy box will only do a journey of about 40 miles at very best and they take some eight hours to recharge the batteries! At this rate a trip by car say, across America would take months and would actually be quicker by horse! If an electric four seat car could do say, some 150 to 200 miles per charge with a re-charge time of not more than twenty minutes, then there would soon be as many electric cars as petrol or diesel. At the moment electric cars are somewhere near valve driven computers of the fifties and need the invention of the transistor to get them that one important step nearer reality.

    • Plug-in hybrids switch to gas after the battery runs down, so they don’t have the problem you suggest. But most drives for most Americans are 5 miles are less, so even a pure EV like a Leaf would be good enough for most people most of the time.

      220 volt rechargers, which are installed in Ann Arbor public parking garages, only take 4 hours to recharge and it happens while you’re parked and at work. You’re about 4 years out of date in your prejudices.

      • You know, if “most drives for most Americans are 5 miles or less”, the US should also start promoting use of bicycles and constructing a lot more safe bicycling lanes.

        In addition, we need more “utility bikes” that folks could ride while dressed for work, and which have ample parcel capacity for that and running errands. The slick 18-speed touring bicycle is great for exercise, if you don’t mind dressing all in lycra and wearing special shoes that you really shouldn’t walk in – but for commuting or running errands, it takes more time and commitment than is reasonable.

    • The Tesla model-S sedan has a 300 mile range. That is, I can easily drive it from San Francisco to Reno, donate money to the casinos, see a show, stay overnight (recharging the car at the hotel) and drive back.

      I could also drive from Sf to LA on one charge, stay at the Disneyland hotel (overnight charge) drive around to all the theme parks, stay a second night (overnight charge) and drive back to SF. If I was worried about the charge, Tesla has a quick charge station half way between SF and LA on I-5.

      The model-S is about the same size as a Toyota Avalon/Lexus Sedan.

      As Mr Cole notes your information is over five years old.

      BTW – Tesla is also going to make the drive train for the Toyota Rav-4 Electric with similar performance.

      • Telsa is also developing a less expensive model ($40,000) for 2015. The S is still in the $60,000 range.

    • Exactly how many of the vehicle miles driven in this country do you think consist of “a trip by car say, across America?”

    • Good essay and Comments;
      Military consumption of oil products is NOT mentioned and is NOT irrelevant.

      Stop The Immoral and Illegal Wars!

    • We have owned a Nissan Leaf for several years now and the range is 108 miles, although to extend the life of the battery we charge it to 80%. It does not take eight hours to charge, but rather just a few. We’ve not had any limitations on our driving, although there is a secondary vehicle for the rare long journey (every 6 months or so).

      The car is powered by the house solar panels. We are not oddities- churches in the area have solar fields elevated to allow for covered parking lots. The local military base has acres of solar panels.

      Unfortunately, there is trouble brewing- a strange desire to make solar seem unprofitable in our state. Two guesses which two brothers are behind this. link to motherjones.com

      To charge people with solar panels $100 per month is horrible- not only would it destroy a thriving solar industry, it would be unfair to those who spent a sum of money up front to have their systems installed.

      It is a freeing feeling, passing gas stations and never having to worry about filling the tank. The car is fun to drive. We are concerned about the environmental costs of fracking and carbon emissions- and solar has been so efficient we sell our excess power back to the city.

    • “Professor whilst I agree with you that electric cars would be wonderful they are just not going to happen until they are comparable with the combustion engine.”

      The ironic thing about this is that all the things one would do to squeeze efficiency out of a gallon of fuel in a hybrid or KWhr out of a battery you can do with a conventional vehicle and smaller engine. Essentially what people have been doing where fuel is $5/gal without hybrids. Anticipating higher cost fuel and price volatility I’d look for cheaper car upfront and reduced use. Even greater efficiency is gained by shared ownership and reducing the number of vehicles.
      Electric vehicle might be competitive when we’ve massively reduced ICE engine use, at which point the idea of a 3500lb electric car to move one person 40 miles will be the domain of the 5% anyway. 38yrs ago I had a 2700lb truck with a 75hp engine that got 24mpg. Nowadays a 2700lb Honda Civic with 140hp gets 40mpg. There’s still more efficiency available with lighter cares and smaller engines.
      Our immediate challenge will be higher cost liquid fuels with no viable alternative fuel. Higher cost BHEV moves some of the energy in construction overseas, batteries, which China will use more oil and coal to produce.
      We are powering down our auto use because we have no choice given the cost of oil. Instead of committing larger amounts of capital/energy to higher tech vehicles simply get a less energy intensive vehicle to purchase then drive it less.

  2. And if the Saudis DID seem to be seriously planning an alliance with China instead of the USA, how do you suppose the USA would react?

    • This will be great for the USA. The alliance of China with the Saudis will put tremendous pressure on Russia and move her closer to the USA. The stigma of being the Saudi supporter will be gone. The big loser will be Iran.

  3. As a Ford retiree and former System Engineer for the Ford Escape Hybrid I would appreciate it if you would note that the Volt is not the only plug-in hybrid vehicle made by US companies. Ford also makes the C-Max Energi and the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrids.

    • Thanks, Jim. They came along after I did my initial research, but I’m sure they are great vehicles too. That people should be buying plug-in hybrids is the point.

    • Thanks Jim and if I had the $$$$ I would being buying one of those Fords you worked one.

    • There is in fact already a spread of PHEVs available. On one end are PHEVs with small batteries (all electric range under 20miles) to the Volt with maybe 40miles electric. Generally these smaller battery PHEVs get much better gas mileage than a Volt (in gasoline mode), so the most economical vehicle depends upon ones expected usage. So we have Prius Plugin, 14mile-EV, but >50mpg after that, the Ford PHEVs, 20? electric range and upper 40′s after that, ans Volt 40mile range and 30something after that. I suspect this tradeoff isn’t intrinsic to the technology, but is the results of design decisions made by the various teams.

      Last I heard 3/4 percent of new USA cars were EVs or PHEVs. Even if this increases several fold, it still will have only a minimal effect on fleet milage, as many millions of ICE vehicles are on the road, and won’t wear out for at least a decade. The difficulty with trying to make the national fleet efficient in order to avoid a potential oil supply issue, is that it takes decades to turn over the fleet. So you have to aggressively begin the transition years before the problem becomes apparent. Free markets have not proved very good at doing that.

  4. Since the heat has been turned up in an attempt to prevent Iran from refining uranium, as a novice I have attempted to understand the distrust between Saudi Arabia and Iran. I was puzzled as to why SA does not want the US to negotiate with Iran. The best explanation I have read was summed up this way..

    “For Saudi Arabia, the stakes seem high. Regional rivalry with Iran has played out with increasing venom.

    The two see themselves as representatives of opposing visions of Islam: the Saudis as guardians of Mecca and conservative Sunni hierarchy, and the Shi’ite Iranians as the vanguard of an Islamic revolution in support of the downtrodden.”

    As we all know the US has a dismal tract record when it comes to brokering deals in the middle east, but especially in this situation where we are walking on egg shells trying to broker a peaceful deal with Iran as Israel and Saudi Arabia apply pressure to use military force.

    I have to think an agreement with Iran is not something John Kerry, a weak kneed neocon appeaser, is capable of accomplishing.

    • You may want to add the following to your understanding (which I have taken from an informative quiz on Saudi Arabia that Juan posted in the past):

      “The ayatollahs’ [1979] revolution in Iran had been a dazzling assertion of Shia power and identity” that challenged the Saud family’s legitimacy. The Saudi royals did not want to suffer the fate of the Shah. The lesson they took away was: the solution to religious upheaval was more religion.

      The Saudi rulers were naturally threatened by Khomeini’s doctrine of rule by the clerics (i.e. rule by Kings was unIslamic). Saudi rulers (along with most Muslims) disagree with Khomeini’s radical doctrine that the ulema (religious scholars) are qualified not simply to advise the ruler, but to exercise government in their own right. The executive power held by Iran’s clerics sets Iran apart from the Muslim world. Saudi leaders argue that from the first caliphs, the secular rulers have always been the executive rulers, while the job of the sheikhs and the mufti has been to give them advice.

      The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 “was a…bloody business.…When Iran launched a successful counterassault in…[1983] against Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked invasion of September 1980, the Saudis financed the Iraqi leader as a Sunni Arab ‘brother.’ Saddam was the best available barrier to the scary prospect of the ayatollahs taking power in Baghdad, while the United States backed the Iraqi tyrant as part of Washington’s enduring attempt to gain some redress for the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81.”
      link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

      • I don’t think anyone was more surprised than John Kerry when Putin picked up Kerry’s off handed comment and ran with it. By doing so it was the Russian who defused the situation, which angered both the Israelis and Saudis, who wanted the US to repeat the mistake made when Bush started an unprovoked war with Iraq.

  5. A less expensive alternative is to convert existing cars from gasoline or diesel to CNG since the US has huge stock piles of Natural Gas. Right now the conversion kits cost over $2000, but there is no technological reason for this (it is mostly a bunch of basic plumbing).

    Between electric cars and CNG cars, the US could mostly ignore the cost of oil (the wholesale price of oil and the wholesale price of NG are NOT coupled to each other in any way and NG is mostly a US local price, not a global price)

    Since I have spent a lot of time in Asia, I would caution the Saudis from thinking that China will be their “friend.” China will be glad to EXPLOIT the Saudis until they are no longer useful and then throw them away like a used tissue. China’s long pragmatic, merchant history has returned. China is not really a communist country, nor is it a real dictatorship. While the leadership is not directly elected by the entire population, the leadership is more a cooperative counsel, not really one man rule and pretty much dedicated to the good of the Chinese people.

    China’s goal is to be off oil as much as possible by the 2020 to 2030 time frame. That is why they are building a whole new passenger rail system for the entire country (mostly electric) and upgrading their freight rail system to mostly electric. That is also why China has a huge solar panel production capacity.

    If the Saudis think they will be getting a new “friend” I suspect they will be surprised to learn that they will be considered just another raw material supplier to China until China no longer needs them and if the Saudis think they can stir the war pot with Chinese backing, they are in for a rude shock.

    BTW – China will not drop Iran for the Saudis, but will keep both on a short leash. The Chinese have managed their vassal states very well for 5000 years, so the Saudis are in for a “fun” ride.

    • That’s really how the international system should work – on trade and its the alternative China promotes. Instead of military alliances and competing spheres. That’s why China is uniform in voting against interventionism, which of course, is its founding. Good comment, thanks!

    • Converting cars to natural gas would destroy the world’s climate. Plus who wants to drive around a bomb?

  6. Until there is a paradigm shift towards public transportation; there is no solution.
    Electric vehicles are the future; whether it’s hydrogen fuel cells, battery, hybrid, or even natural gas; we better figure it out or we will self extinct.
    We just have to catch up to that future; that reality.
    If not, we’re the next extinct species.
    And, for the good of the planet earth; that may be the best solution.

  7. I’d love to have a Chevy Volt; but I live in rural Vermont on a dirt road up a mountain, and during winter and mud season I would not be able to get around. I need an all wheel drive or 4-wheel drive Chevy Volt.

  8. Not only horses, but bicycles or tricycles for young and old. That would get us to start thinking closer to home about what we need in the way of necessities.

  9. Juan, I am perplexed by the theatricality of recent Saudi behavior. This “hissy-fit” or “tantrum” behavior might well be seen in the west as “losing face” and certainly suggest Saudi’s announcing FAILURE to get the US on board with its ambitions, rather than frustration.

    Alternatively, are they actually saving face by shifting the blame to the United States and the (perennial and safe target) the UN? They certainly are making clear and publicizing the scope of their (thwarted) ambitions — no one anywhere can doubt that they rival Israel in having Iran in their sights, moving beyong rivalry and animus.

    How legally entangled and stable is the USA’s claims of the KSA and its oil? It was anticipated (I think) that both Iraq and Libya would provide insurance/backup/reserve capacity, something that not only (as far as I am aware) to materialize, nor did the US even appear to be attempt to do so.

    The importance of the US favorite nation status with the Saudis and the fundamental and critical importance of abundant and cheap oil to the American economy has been stress so often and for so long, it’s hard not to dread the next shoe dropping… however, if this is largely for KSA’s domestic regional audience and if the KSA is otherwise obligated to fulfill US oil requirements, this again may be face-saving.

    Finally, how do we distinguish between anti-KSA forces (Saudi and Yemeni) from Al-Qa’ida at this point? Saleh discovered the gold mine of US funding and hardware and personnel to be reaped by transforming his multiple and varied insurgent movements into Al-Qa’ida. Failing to make these distinctions based on these groups defined objected and their lineage again creates an outsized boogie man of unclear Al-Qa’ida ties, much less shared objectives, particularly internationally.

    Is renouncing the U.S. and the U.N. in this fashion also sop to the more radical anti-American Saudi population? As with Al-Qa’ida, how much of this is directed to the “local” audience. With the KSA facilitating Al-Qa’ida in so many regional conflicts, to what degree is it still the “near enemy”?

  10. Excellent piece. I’ll add that those articles about the coal mix in the electricity that recharges cars miss an important point: electric cars are recharged mainly at night, when the fuel mix in the grid is particularly clean, because the stations brought online for peak demand, so-called peakers, are shut down. These are the dirtiest stations in the fleet.

    When it comes to getting off foreign oil, switching to electric cars is important, but just as important is driving down vehicle miles traveled by car. Living close to work, living in a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood, and living and working near public transit (in short, living in an urban environment) can do even more to reduce petroleum usage. Even the biggest SUV doesn’t burn any oil if it’s parked in the driveway.

  11. Respectfully Juan our problem with unsustainable oil consumption and vulnerability to declining world exports of oil will not be addressed by purchasing passenger hybrids or electric cars.

    First off the time it takes to replace 150million passenger vehicles is in decades, IF you have the capital or credit to do so. There’s about another 100million vehicles from busses to heavy trucks and farm equipment that run on oil. The vehicles people have bought this decade aren’t appreciably more efficient than ten years ago. The savings aren’t in hybrids getting 50mpg compared to a small engine sedan getting 35mpg but in light trucks getting 15mpg instead of 11mpg.

    What people are doing is what we’ll continue to do which is change behavior, driving less with existing vehicles and not using vehicles at all for some errands. Using existing vehicles with more people between four tires and more shared cars like ZipCars.

    If there’s any chance of a terrorist attack on Saudi oil facilities like there was on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 the word economy will take a hit even from a short term disruption in supply. If I was an American with $15k saved for a new Prius and small note I would probably hold off the purchase because that cash will be more useful for existing expenses or unemployment.

    Also look up Jevon’s Paradox. It’s less expensive overall and more effective to simply raise fuel taxes to reduce consumption.

  12. I would like to make an observation. The Saudi family is dependent for their existence on the United States. They also have an extensive investment in the United States. They are very shrewd to rock the boat. This is a tempest in the teapot. Very soon you will see them complying with the wishes of the US. I don’t think this is going to be a major event. But, if they try to change their relation and hook up with the Chinese, they will be assassinated.

  13. For all that Turkey supposed;y likes democracy — to be specific, the AKP endorses fascism with a ballot box, the same distinction that keeps Zimbabwe in good standing with the OAU — it is headed in exactly the same direction: Supporting Sunnis of any stripe including AQ, no concern for violence against Shiites in Iraq, pivot from UN and toward China. We foolishly continue to support it despite its lack of oil.

  14. Reality check: Most Americans drive 5 miles a day. That’s 1825 miles a year or 18,250 miles in ten yrs. Not what I’m seeing. In fact, I, routinely, see 5 yr old cars with 75-80 thousand on them. I’m retired and don’t drive much anymore but drive 10,000 a yr or 28 miles a day. Electric cars will fill a niche market of a particular type of person.

    John Wilson has some very valid points. One, limited, example. I live in northern Minnesota where the local economy is extremely dependent, as are huge areas of America, on tourism. It’s 220 miles to Minneapolis meaning several four hour charges just to get here. Unfortunately, I think Mr Cole is decades behind in his understanding of the driving patterns of the real America. People do far, far more with their vehicles than just drive to work.

    • Most people don’t drive those kind of miles daily, on average. You’re not thinking about the whole country. In fact because of the high price of gasoline, most young people have moved to cities and many are using public transport to get to their jobs, where they have one. Others are just driving less. That is one reason our national consumption of petroleum has fallen 3 million barrels a day since 2007.

  15. We bought a Nissan Leaf, not a Volt a few months ago. Love it. Installed the charger in our garage and are in the midst of the process to install solar panels on our roof.

    Our one big complaint with the electric car is the range. Depending on what features we access, the maximum distance we can go on a single charge is 90 miles, give or take. That’s good enough to tool around the city as a second car but the battery needs a lot more to turn EVs into a mass market item. Still, if you figure that the batteries will improve by 6% per annum – that’s an estimate offered by Tesla — the problem will ameliorate in coming years.

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