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Gas From Grass: The Growing Biofuels Movement

Friday, 22 September 2006 12:00 AM

My friend David is an oil and gas man. He has spent the last 20 years of his life as an independent driller looking for oil in the ground. No one understands better than an oilman how hard it is to find a barrel of oil. Which is why today, David is determined to turn grass into gas.

David is David Fleischaker, the visionary Secretary of Energy of the state of Oklahoma, and one of the nation's leaders in the growing biofuels movement. And make no mistake, it is a movement and a mission.

David is a Yellow Dog Democrat, but he gives George W. Bush, oilman and son of an oilman, credit for one thing: admitting our addiction to foreign oil and setting the goal of replacing 30 percent of the petroleum we consume with biofuels by 2020.

Consider the facts: America today imports 60 percent of the petroleum we consume, 40 percent from hostile countries. In the early 1970s, we imported 30 percent. Domestic oil production peaked in the 1970s and has decreased every year since. Half of that 60 percent is converted to transportation fuels -- gasoline at the pump, fuel to transport everything and everyone by rail, road and air.

The question is: Can we produce transportation fuels out of something else?

What about hydrogen, you ask. There are two problems with using hydrogen as a replacement for gasoline. First, it is extremely expensive to convert water to hydrogen; the conversion costs are substantial. Second, there are substantial infrastructure problems. You can't use the same filling stations and the same engines we have now if we had hydrogen cars.

What can you find that will use the engines we have now, the infrastructure we have already built? The answer is biofuels.

Corn-based biofuels are already here. If you live in Denver or Albuquerque, you may already be pumping ethanol into your tank to reduce emissions during part of the year. The cost of producing ethanol has decreased significantly in the 20 years we've been doing it. Even so, if tomorrow we all stopped eating corn and feeding it to cattle, it would still only meet some 10 percent of our transportation needs.

Which is why we need something else. That something else, says David, is cellulose. Cellulose is woody plant material, prairie grass, crop residue (what's left behind after you harvest). Tobacco farmers could grow switch grass instead of tobacco. The battered lumber industry could find relief in the demand for tree products to be converted to fuel. The possibilities are endless and exciting.

In April 2005, a joint study by the USDA and the Department of Energy concluded, admittedly with some aggressive assumptions, that we have the capacity to produce enough biomass to meet the 30 percent goal. The Billion Ton Study, as it was called, found that we could produce 1.3 billion tons for fuel and not affect the food supply.

What would it take?

The conditions are there, David tells me enthusiastically. We are already in the middle of the perfect storm, whether we like it or not. Our national security is threatened by our dangerous dependence on foreign oil. Supplies are limited and demand is growing. China and India represent 3.2 billion new consumers at the table who weren't there when the discussion of ethanol first began, not to mention growing concern about the environment and global warming.

Things are beginning to happen. The venture capitalists are hovering, trying to figure out where the money will be made. Some of them are already investing in the crop side. There is a plant about to open in Idaho. Farmers are willing to listen. What is needed is political leadership. Politicians these days are like CEOs. They don't think about 2020. They think about tomorrow. It will take a visionary to make this happen. Or an oilman who can see the future.

COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.

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My friend David is an oil and gas man. He has spent the last 20 years of his life as an independent driller looking for oil in the ground. No one understands better than an oilman how hard it is to find a barrel of oil. Which is why today, David is determined to turn grass...
Gas,From,Grass:,The,Growing,Biofuels,Movement
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2006-00-22
Friday, 22 September 2006 12:00 AM
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