Proposals for an alcohol-fueled end to dependence on foreign oil do not sit lightly on the American landscape.
Can they fit within our borders at all?
State Of The Union speeches tend to cross using
figures with speaking figuratively, and this hybrid rhetoric can bear
strange fruit, like the switchgrass mania spreading up K Street like
kudzu. Math has never been the Beltway's strongest suit, and it will
take a while for many in DC to realize that biofuel, like the solar and
wind energy franchises already on offer, suffers from sheer lack of
A recent WSJ Op-ed devoted a thousand words to singing the praises of cellulose fermentation , but neglected to divide its rosy bottom line projections by ethanol's depressingly low energy content - a barrel of the stuff falls so far short of real gasoline-- over two million BTU's,that you'd need about ten gallons extra to equal a tankful. Japan's last gasp in World War II was distilling biomass to get kamekaze fuel.
Solar ranching translates into paving areas the size of Massachusetts with silicon panels. But farming out the fuel supply means putting multiples of Texas under the plough. Even corn as tall as an elephant's eye yields less than half a gallon of ethanol per acre per day. And biotech might, at best, wring another quart out of fertile farmland.
That's just not enough...
-- it takes hundreds of millions of gallons of gas a day to run America's cars, trucks and tractors. A switch grass combine's mileage makes an Escalade look like a Prius rolling downhill. It would take upwards of a billion extra acres -- a million square miles -- to fuel the nation's transport.
A billion mile furrow is a long row to hoe -- decades of Green evangelism have failed to make alternative fuel crops a reality. A Federal subsidy program could command their planting, but the President's SOTU proposal amounts to reducing oil imports by less than 0.7% a year.
we're taken for a ride on the switchgrass hay wagon, let's reexamine
another sort of American biofuel -- the fossil biomass underfoot. It
contains millions of times the solar energy agriculture can store in a
year, and vastly more hydrogen than the nation's oil and gas reserves,
ANWR included. It is called coal, and the technology for getting energy out of it and
into our gas tanks is well proven.
Remember the "Energy Crisis"? It evoked National Academy of Science reports that still hold lucidly detailed answers to most of the energy policy questions junior congressmen, and op-ed writers, are asking anew today. The information revolution hasn't changed the laws of thermodynamics or the facts of fossil fuel geology since the 1974 Oil Shock. Reading studies of real resources may not be as fashionable as donning Green sackcloth, but the fact remains that America already has a four-century fuel reserve that's organic and pesticide free. For those fearful of climate change, it's also completely invulnerable to weeds, blight, hail, drought and hurricanes: fossil sunshine is immune to foul weather.
Coal's environmentally sound conversion presents complex problems, but four decades of research have already solved at lot of them. Wade through the National Academy of Science reports arising from the original "Energy Crisis" and you'll find that while premature attempts to convert oil shale and high hydrogen coal to liquid fuel were doomed by the petroleum price collapse of the '80s, coal and shale based synfuels have been historically supplied at about half the petroleum prices prevailing today (prices that have also assured nuclear electricity's economic future). Fuel farming may have its hour in the spotlight, but it will gather more applause if summoned by the invisible hand of economics than shoved on stage by the White House and the Greens.
With the War on Terror in progress, 17% of our oil still comes from the Mideast. Gasohol could allay our dependence, but what of the prospect of oil states retaliating? If biofuels debut prematurely, OPEC could drown them in the cradle by turning on the pumps, because average world oil production costs remain well under $18 a barrel. Petroleum reserves are not yet so far depleted that OPEC could not wring another Oil Glut from them. The road downhill from Hubbert's Peak is a mighty long one, and while futures traders may perceive the world's oil storage tanks as half empty, some mighty large reserves remain half full.