Agricultural waste could end US oil dependency

American farmers and industry could soon team up to produce 50 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year, dramatically reducing US dependence on oil imported from the volatile Middle East, a Republican advocate for biofuels has stated.

Former counsel to President Bush, C Boyden Gray said there was currently a strong case for stepped-up reliance on ethanol produced from agricultural wastes, wood residues and other surplus waste products, according to a study by the Battelle Memorial Institute.

“About a quarter of the total US energy consumption is for transportation, which depends almost entirely on oil,” Mr Gray explained. “Transportation consumes roughly two-thirds of the oil we use, nearly 60% of which is imported. So if we are to move away from dependence upon imported oil, we must change the transportation sector.”

Former director of the CIA James Woolsey also said that a failure to kick the oil habit put both the country and the world in danger, and that all oil-importing nations were in this dangerous situation together.

“Given the integrated nature of the world economy and the degree to which our economic fortunes are intertwined, we accomplish nothing particularly useful if we merely shift out own purchases of oil from one of the world’s regions to another, thereby reshuffling the existing buyers and sellers,” Mr Woolsey stated.

“Under current circumstances, an oil crisis will affect all our economies, regardless of the source of our own imports.”

Unlike corn ethanol, already widely used as an additive to stretch gasoline by 10% or more, new biotech advances can enable corn stalks, wheat straw, rice hulls, grasses and even municipal waste to be used as the new crude for “bio-refineries” without disrupting other agricultural activities.

A shift to this new kind of ethanol was a practical and immediate way for the US to move away from such strong dependency on foreign oil, according to Mr Gray.

“Shifting to greater reliance on bio-energy offers our country an opportunity to protect itself by doing the right thing: aiding our farmers, the environment and the nation’s energy security,” he stated. “It also can help resolve global trade deadlocks that centre on whether our support for agriculture undermines the rural poor in the rest of the world.”

He said that, according to a study by economist William Cline at the Centre for Global Development, producing 50 billion additional gallons of ethanol in the US could indirectly life over 40 million people out of poverty in developing nations.

More attention should be focussed on turning biomass into fuel, Mr Woolsey added, as it was a quickly available alternative to oil that could also create a huge number of jobs in rural America.

“Last year we paid the outside world about a billion dollars every three days for imported oil – even replacing a share of this with domestic production of transportation fuel could create hundreds of thousands of jobs,” he said.

By Jane Kettle

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