I rarely spend time on message boards other than the Fool's. Other boards tend to be pits of iniquity where the manic, semiliterate, and freakin' crazy come together to pat each other on the back or spit in each other's faces. That may not be enlightening, but I'll admit it can sometimes be entertaining.
I especially like to watch the reactions when anyone dares to challenge the viability of fuel cell companies like Hoku Scientific
Like most conspiracy theories, there are numerous holes large enough to drive a diesel truck through, but we'll just pick out a few for today. I'm not saying it's impossible that the oil companies are all cahootenizing together to suppress new energy technologies. But there are several reasons why this particular theory falls a bit short of logical.
A long farewell to crude
Check the major oil companies' production figures. Many of them are struggling to maintain, let alone increase, crude oil production. U.S. oil production peaked long ago, and more than a few folks believe that we're close to a similar peak in global oil. That's bad news for the likes of ExxonMobil
Now, if oil companies had a lot of surplus oil lying around, I could understand why they might be a bit nervous about fuel cells' effect on demand for oil. But for most of the past few decades, the United States' problem hasn't been demand, but supply. And even if gasoline demand falls, oil will still be needed for diesel and jet fuels and a host of chemicals that fuel cells can't replace.
The launch of the first hydrogen-powered car won't instantly send every gasoline-powered automobile to the scrap heap. Even if automakers put their full weight behind fuel cell vehicles, it would take a decade or two to replace the existing fleet. That's a long time for Big Oil to keep selling its dwindling product. Think about it this way: How willing would you be to engage in a huge, expensive, and most likely illegal conspiracy to protect a market for a product you're starting to run out of anyway?
Where ya gonna get your hydrogen?
There's a lot of cute talk about how fuel cells will break our dependence upon fossil fuels. Maybe, maybe not. See, usable hydrogen just isn't that common on Earth. Most of it is locked away in water, rock, or organic materials. For now, there are three viable means of producing hydrogen and no reason Big Oil can't get involved.
First, hydrogen can be liberated from hydrocarbons like coal, oil, and natural gas in a process not too conceptually different from refining. Second, hydrogen can be obtained from the electrolysis of seawater, but that requires electricity, most of which comes from burning fossil fuels. Lastly, it's at least scientifically possible to produce hydrogen from living critters (like bacteria). Although nobody has produced hydrogen this way in any volume, the basic notion of using wee creatures to produce things we want is well-established in products like alcohol and insulin.
What some people seem to forget is that the oil giants are energy companies, not gasoline-engine companies. If they can produce and sell hydrogen profitably, that's an opportunity for them, not a threat to them. Besides, let's not forget that much of our country's refining capacity is fairly old. Companies will have to decide over the next decade or two whether they want to replace and renovate old gasoline refineries or build new facilities -- facilities that could perhaps produce hydrogen.
Fill 'er up . where?
Let's assume that engineers figure out a workable and economical fuel cell car. And let's also assume that somebody figures out a way to affordably produce the quantities of hydrogen needed to fuel those cars. Where ya gonna put it? We're not going to refuel our vehicles by pulling up to the doorstep of the hydrogen refinery or installing huge storage tanks under our garage. Instead, we'll do what we always do: Go to filling stations.
Not all big oil companies own gas stations, but most do. They understand the distribution system, and they have an infrastructure in place. Accordingly, I expect many of today's gas stations to remain active when fuel cell vehicles arrive. Maybe the oil companies will produce the hydrogen themselves, or maybe they'll partner with industrial gas companies. Either way, they know how to do the job of selling energy to consumers, and selling hydrogen could be just another opportunity for profit.
America isn't the only country that consumes gasoline, nor is it the only country with skilled engineers. There's this country across the Pacific that you may have heard of: Japan. It's got plenty of talented scientists -- but no credible internal supplies of oil. Japan's dependence upon imported oil is a pretty big incentive to develop technologies to make oil and gasoline obsolete.
Now, how likely is it that the Japanese government would take bribes from foreign oil companies to suppress technology that could be quite literally a matter of national security? I'm the first to acknowledge that Japanese politics are about as corrupt as they come, but that stretches credulity pretty far.
Who was the first to introduce a viable hybrid auto to the U.S.? The Japanese -- specifically Toyota
Titan vs. titan
Maybe you're still not convinced. Maybe you still think Big Oil is muscling out the little up-and-comers who would free us all from fossil fuels. Well, here's the thing: It's not just the little guys leading the charge toward alternative energy.
Some of the top fuel cell developers are huge companies in their own right. General Electric
The bottom line
New energy technology is coming whether we like it or not. Heck, even gasoline was new technology at some point. (Fuel cells actually predate gasoline engines.) But whether we're all going to drive around in cars powered by liquefied coal, biodiesel, or hydrogen is still very much up in the air. So is the question of which research-stage companies will thrive, survive, or dive.
In the meantime, investors would do well to stop blaming the slow pace of discovery on shorts, skeptics, the government, or Big Oil. Instead, point those fingers at the real guilty parties: Promotional managers and their analyst hypesters. Remember that, for investors, energy tech is largely similar to biotech. The companies with good management (who own significant stakes), good technology, and access to capital are generally your best bets. Ignore the hype, investigate the technology, and invest accordingly.
Trade your tinfoil hat for a Fool's cap:
- Joke's on You With Hoku
- Investing in a Crooked Market
- In the Wake of Katrina: Energy
- Manipulation and the Individual Investor
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).