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"Addicted to Oil": How Can U.S. Fulfill Bush Pledge?

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
February 14, 2006
 
In his annual State of the Union address, delivered to Congress on
January 31, President George W. Bush drew headlines by announcing
that the time has come to do something about the United States'
"addiction" to oil.

He pledged to invest in alternative energies—including ethanol and hydrogen fuel—and reduce Middle East oil imports by 75 percent by 2025.

It's a worthy goal, but how can the United States achieve it?

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.

Fuel Economy and Biofuels

President Bush's proposed reduction in Mideast oil imports amounts to about 15 percent of total current U.S. oil usage. Most energy experts view that as a step in the right direction.

One possible way to do it is to increase the average car's fuel economy by a few miles per gallon.

If such regulations were passed today, they would begin to have a significant impact in time to meet the president's 2025 deadline. That's because car designs are planned years in advance and old cars remain on the roads until they wear out.

"It takes 15 years to roll over the vehicle stock," Kopp said.

Another approach is by switching to ethanol and other plant-based biofuels (photo gallery: Powering the Future).

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.

Even with major improvements in fuel economy, however, that would require putting an additional 250 million acres (100 million hectares—an area two and a half times as large as California) into agricultural production.

"It's doable," Kammen says, "but it would take some rough choices."

Hydrogen Economy?

In the State of the Union address Bush also said, "We will increase our research in … pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen." (See "Hydrogen-Fueled Race Car Showcases Future Technologies.")

Most people don't realize that hydrogen takes energy to produce, USC's Prakash says.

"You can't make a hole in the ground and pump hydrogen," Prakash said. "You have to make it."

Furthermore, he said, "storage and distribution are a nightmare."

The problem is that hydrogen is an extremely permeable gas. If placed in current gas tanks and pipelines, it would seep through the walls and be lost.

Prakash estimates that a hydrogen economy would require two trillion to three trillion U.S. dollars in new pipelines. (See "New Process Could Help Make Hydrogen Fuel Affordable.")

"All of these things look nice to the layman," Prakash said. "But there are lots of pitfalls."

Other energy sources receiving attention include coal liquefaction (the chemical conversion of coal into synthetic liquid fuel) and tar sands, which can be processed into synthetic oil. However, these have the drawback that, like oil, they contribute to global warming.

Many experts prefer nuclear power, though critics point to safety and waste-storage issues.

Future Fuels

In the long run we may see entirely new energy technologies.

U.C.'s Kammen thinks it's possible to add extra batteries to today's gasoline-electric hybrid cars to create plug-in hybrids that can be recharged at home, the office, and the mall.

Such cars might be able to go 200 to 300 miles (320 to 480 kilometers) on a gallon (3.8 liters) of gas, he says.

Already, an organization called CalCars is at work on this project.

"It's a cool technology," U.C.'s Farrell says.

Kammen is also a fan of wind power and rooftop solar generators.

"There are parts of northern Germany that already get a quarter of their electricity from wind. In a good month they get 50 percent," Kammen said.

Another prospect is methanol, which can be made from natural gas. And, unlike hydrogen, it's easy to store and transport.

In the future green electrical power could be used to make methanol from recycled carbon dioxide, Prakash says.

Such a technology would not only provide fuel but also ease global warming, since carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is known to trap heat.

To a lot of folks, that would be the ultimate win-win solution.

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