Think of this as Volume 17, Number 6 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
For those who need a quick refresher, the War Against Oil is the chief economic necessity of our time. The Sun shines, the wind blows, we live on a molten rock, yet we still power our world like cavemen did, by digging up shit we can burn and burning it. As a result we're burning up our planet.
There are still (believe it or not) idiots who deny that methane and carbon dioxide are responsible for increased global temperatures, for more extreme weather, and for the melting of ice caps around the world. Some are paid shills for folks who want to dig shit up and burn it. Others are ideologues who scream “no” at anyone saying yes. And some are indeed idiots.
The political winds toward burning shit grew to hurricane force during the Bush years, with the wholesale takeover of the country by the fossil fuel industry. The results were war and (ta da) rising fossil fuel prices. We're now accustomed to paying $4/gallon for gasoline, just as the “boiling frog” got used to hot water, and the industry wants to apply more pressure.
All the fracking in the U.S. is not going to drop gas prices one dime. It's not in the frackers' interest to do it, they control the process of getting fracked oil to market, it's just not going to happen. Besides, fracking costs big money. Margins are thinner from fracking than they are from sticking a straw into the ground and sucking.
The only way we're going to get a thumb down on prices is with an alternative to fracking. And right now, that means biofuels.
Chu is a Nobel Prize winner, but he didn't win his prize for anything related to biofuels. It was for cooling and trapping atoms with laser light. That's different. Basically, the industry is accusing Chu of making choices on which renewable resources would be developed, choices that played into the hands of fossil fuel advocates. The result is that the biofuel component of renewable energy standards is being cut, and the industry is working hard, with some success, to kill even that.
The problem for biofuels is that the easiest path to success is with food crops, turning corn or sugar cane to ethanol. When the cost of the feedstock rises, as it has for corn, you are competing with food needs for fuel, and you're going to lose. Corn ethanol plants have been closing all over the country in the last year due to last year's drought and bad harvest.
The promise for biofuels has been cellulosic alcohol, produced from non-food crops. Things like switchgrass, algae, and wood chips all hold promise. But progress has been slow, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the nation's second-highest court, ruled last week the mandate on cellulosic alcohol illegal because there isn't enough product to meet the mandate.
Right now, in fact, there is only one commercial-grade cellulosic plant operating in the U.S., a wood chip plant owned by KiOR, a public company backed by Vinod Khosla. It's in Columbus, Mississippi, and its current costs are $7/gallon. That's not going to get it done.
Cellulosic alcohol research is still being done. University of Illinois scientists have found a bacterium that might help. German researchers have found a way to break wood down into its components, making them better plastics feedstocks. There's a company called Incitor that claims its process can get costs down to $2.25/gallon but that's a speculation.
Progress has also been limited on the battery front, which was Chu's favored path. Electric cars still cost too much because batteries cost too much, and are too limited. We've seen the headlines from Boeing, which decided to rely on lithium-ion technology for its new planes and was burned.
Just because something isn't happening yet doesn't mean it won't happen. Every wildcatter knows there are going to be dry holes, and dry holes in science always precede breakthroughs. That's just the way it is. Jim Lane of BiofuelsDigest is proposing a giant “lend-lease” program of federal lands, converted to use by the biofuel industry for supplying military needs for fuel. But what technology will be used – what will the land be planted in? In his article Lane uses KiOR's numbers, but does that mean we grow pine forests?
The case for biofuels is being hampered by a lack of truth on both sides, and low priorities from the Administration. That needs to change. Otherwise America's competitors, like Brazil, are going to define the biofuel future. That's the risk that needs to be acknowledged, not the risk that biofuels are “impossible,” as those who don't want competition claim, but the risk that we'll lose the future of this important technology to other countries, and thus our autonomy.
The place to do that is from the top, in the announcement of a new secretary and an acknowledgement by the President of what we're facing and what we need to do in the War Against Oil. The war, in short, needs leadership. The time for that leadership is now. We can no longer afford a policy of lip service to climate change with no forward motion.
Or to put it in historic terms, you've had your McClellan, Mr. President. Time to find a General Grant.