February 18, 2006

Replacing Petroleum with Biofuels and Renewable Energy

Perhaps no other more highly respected publication speaks on behalf of a concern for preservation of the earth and mankind than National Geographic. Reducing the "addiction to oil" means more than just reducing our import of Mideast petroleum. It means broadscale replacement of oil with biofuels and other renewable energy. Below are some excerpts from an article they published in response to President Bush's State of the Union commitment to reduce oil imports.


"Addicted to Oil": How Can U.S. Fulfill Bush Pledge?
Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
February 14, 2006

The U.S. imports approximately 60 percent of its oil, but relatively little comes from the Middle East.

Only one Persian Gulf country is among the top five foreign sources: Saudi Arabia, which ranks third, behind Canada and Mexico. (The other members of the top five are Venezuela in South America and Nigeria in Africa.)

Reducing Middle Eastern imports therefore won't cure our reliance on foreign oil, says Ray Kopp, an economist at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank.

Even if we imported no Middle Eastern oil, we'd be vulnerable to political instabilities in the region, Kopp says, because global oil prices are tightly linked.

The U.S. is also committed to allies that are strongly dependent on Middle Eastern oil, says Alex Farrell, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG) at the University of California, Berkeley.

Another approach is by switching to ethanol and other plant-based biofuels.

In the U.S. ethanol is made by fermenting corn in industrial plants. (Brazil makes ethanol from sugar cane.) (See "Ethanol More Energy Efficient Than Thought, Study Says.")

Ethanol is already a billion-dollar industry in the U.S., says Surya Prakash, a chemistry professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The U.S. ethanol industry produces about 4 billion gallons (15 billion liters) a year. But in terms of energy output, those 4 billion gallons equal only 2.5 billion gallons (9.5 billion liters) of gasoline, Prakash says.

That's because ethanol generates less power per gallon than gas.

"It's a drop in the bucket," Prakash says. "It can hardly cover three or four days' … usage" of gasoline in the U.S.

Other biofuels may hold greater promise.

These include products made from the switchgrass and wood chips mentioned in President Bush's address.

Prakash estimates that the different forms of biofuel can together probably replace 10 to 15 percent of total U.S. gasoline usage—enough to meet the president's goal of reducing oil imports from the Mideast by 75 percent.

Daniel Kammen, also in the ERG at U.C., Berkeley, is more optimistic.

Currently, he says, enough waste biomass is being generated by lumbering, by farming, and as urban waste to meet 10 percent of U.S. transportation needs.

With a major commitment, Kammen thinks it might be possible to replace all of the nation's oil with biofuels.

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