At last, Congress is on the brink of passing new legislation on biofuels. A vital component of a big energy bill now includes refinery requirements that would double the nation’s use of ethanol.
That’s great news for farmers, workers, and motorists. A recent study by the National Association of Farm Growers says that doubling the use of ethanol would increase farmers’ incomes by $1.3 billion per year, create 214,000 jobs, and lower the price of gasoline at the pump.
Yet, there’s much more at stake here. About 56 percent of our country’s oil is imported–and this figure is expected to go up in the years ahead. We’re simply becoming too reliant on the natural resources of foreign countries. It’s great that we can trade with them, but our energy needs are too critical to leave them vulnerable to the whims of political rulers in places like Iran and Venezuela.
Ethanol now supplies 1 percent of America’s motor fuel, so doubling its use wouldn’t free the United States from its dependence on foreign oil. But it’s a start. As the Washington Post noted last week, “If [ethanol] production doubled to 5 billion gallons in 2012, it would displace about 200 million barrels of oil that would otherwise be imported by U.S. refiners to make gasoline–roughly the amount of oil imports from Iraq in 2002.”
There have been a couple of arguments against biofuels; producing them is too expensive, and it takes more energy to produce them than they provide to motorists. That’s not true. The latest data from the federal government suggest that ethanol creates more energy than it uses. “The amount of energy needed to produce ethanol is about 30 percent less than the value of ethanol as a fuel,” says Blake Early of the American Lung Association–a group that backs the new energy provision in Congress because it would lead to cleaner air. Furthermore, we are getting more efficient at producing biofuels. Higher yielding crops along with more efficient manufacturing means biofuels are getting more competitive with petroleum-based fuels every day.
These new figures are encouraging, and the number-crunchers have a significant role to play in determining the costs and benefits of ethanol. But they also miss some of the big-picture questions that can’t be compressed into an accountant’s spreadsheet.
What, for instance, is the cost of our country’s involvement in the Persian Gulf? Perhaps we can assign a dollar value to it–but even that only captures a portion of the real burden. There are political and diplomatic costs as well. Wouldn’t it be great if we could free ourselves entirely from our dependence on the oil reserves in Iraq, or some similar country? The more you think about it, the better home-grown biofuels look.
In his Farewell Address to the nation, George Washington warned America against entangling alliances. The father of our country could not have envisioned today’s fuel-driven technologies, but his words still matter. And what could be more entangling than our heavy reliance on foreign oil?
Developing more resources here at home won’t solve all of our energy problems, but it’s a step in the right direction. We need a firm commitment to biofuels, and not just ethanol. At Southern Illinois University, researchers are studying how to turn everything from discarded cornhusks to chicken droppings into the fuel that can power our planes, trains, and automobiles. In Europe and Asia, biodiesel is the popular “green fuel” of choice and North American consumers are steadily increasing their support of this renewable, environmentally friendly fuel.
Biotechnology is an important partner in this quest. Through the miracle of genetics, we’ve built a better corn plant that wards off pests, conserves soil, and boosts yield. In the future, we may create one that’s an even more efficient producer of the fuel we need. When we as consumers continue to look for and use renewable, environmentally friendly energy choices, industry will continue to invest in new technologies that have the promise of improving the efficiencies even more. That’s a win.
Before we get there, however, we’ll need a firm commitment from the federal government signaling that it understands the nature of the problem–as well as the promise of the solution.