Back during World War II, the Allies were successful in largely cutting off Germany’s oil supply. To maintain their war effort, the Germans figured out how to make synthetic oil from coal. Later, the South Africans perfected the German technology in order to cope with international sanctions.
Consequently, making oil from coal is not some pie-in-the-sky dream, but something scientists and engineers have known how to do for quite a long time. The hang-up has always been cost—no one has ever figured out how to make synthetic oil for a price that is competitive with the conventional stuff.
Cost didn’t bother the Germans and South Africans; for them energy independence was something imposed upon them by their enemies. They didn’t have the luxury of choosing among alternatives; synfuel was it.
In the 1970s, American politicians latched onto synthetic fuels as a way of coping with Arab oil embargos. In the waning days of the Ford Administration, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller proposed a $100 billion energy independence corporation that would subsidize synthetic fuel development in order to make it commercial. A similar effort today would cost close to $400 billion.
Although the legislation had strong bipartisan support and passed the Senate by a vote of 80 to 10, it ran into opposition in the House, where a combination of left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans ganged up on it. The lefties were mostly concerned about the environmental consequences of synfuels, while the right-wingers were against government subsidies.
The unholy alliance of left-wingers and right-wingers managed to stop the synfuel bill temporarily in 1975. But whenever there is the prospect of multi-billion dollar subsidies on the table, it takes more than one bullet to kill the beast. The following year, synfuel supporters were back with a scaled-down program. They thought that if they could just get a few demonstration projects going, then they could gradually expand the program.
Once again, the principal opposition was in the House. Although support for the new synfuel effort was much stronger, opponents also picked up some key allies. The most important was the U.S. General Accounting Office, which threw cold water on just about every argument offered by the pro-synfuel crowd. In a tense vote on Sept. 23, 1976, the synfuel bill was defeated by a single vote.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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