Thursday, February 02, 2006

Bush and Oil

In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, George W. Bush proposed new energy policies to reduce American dependence on oil imports. From the speech:

BUSH: Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper and more reliable alternative energy sources. And we are on the threshold of incredible advances.

So tonight I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants; revolutionary solar and wind technologies; and clean, safe nuclear energy.

BUSH: We must also change how we power our automobiles.

We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen.

We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass.

Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.

BUSH: Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum- based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.

This kind of proposal is long-delayed. We really should have gotten more serious encouragement for alternative fuels at the latest in the year after the World Trade Center attack, and preferably long before then. But we will take what we can get. Unfortunately, the administration is already backing away from Bush's words.

But short of imposing bans or embargoes, the U.S. government can do little to prevent companies from buying oil from any nation they can. White House officials acknowledged yesterday that their plan would not necessarily reduce imports from the Middle East because that determination is made by market conditions and not U.S. directives.

Additionally, the world's oil market is so interdependent that even if the United States ceased buying oil from all Middle Eastern nations, a disruption in the flow of Middle East oil to other countries would affect American prices.

There is also some question about how serious of a proposal this really is, especially since the funding for research is relatively low while the demand for oil continues to increase. More funding might give a better chance of finding a cheap way to produce and sell alternative fuels.

The White House wants to accelerate research into the production of "cellulosic ethanol" from plant fiber, an abundant renewable resource. The president talked about making the fuel from wood chips, stalks and switchgrass, which is commonly found in North America.

The technology exists to produce that type of ethanol today but not at competitive prices, industry specialists said. Most of the ethanol now produced domestically comes from corn. The administration wants to make cellulosic ethanol competitive within six years. Proponents of the idea say that once that happens, automakers would increase production of "flex fuel" vehicles that could run on gasoline or fuels primarily made from ethanol.

The oil provisions are part of a larger Bush vision of increasing funding for alternative energy sources. The White House is calling for more to be spent on research into cleaner-burning coal, solar and wind power.

While the details of this get hashed out, the best solution for the environmentally-conscious is probably to conserve energy where possible.