Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Great New American Enterprise

Huffington Post
Coleen Rowley
A Great New American Enterprise

In his State of the Union address, President Bush rightly decried our addiction to oil. Our reliance on foreign oil has risen steadily since 1973, and today the U.S. consumes roughly 25% of the world's oil. Our dependence on foreign suppliers, many in politically unstable regions, leaves our economy vulnerable to an oil shock which might result from escalating tensions between Syria, Israel and Iran, or from ethnic tensions in Nigeria.

And although the U.S. does not purchase oil directly from Iran, the number three oil producer globally, our insatiable consumption drives up prices and bolsters the Islamist theocracy's hold on power.

Although President Bush pledged to reduce Middle East oil imports 75% by 2025, this was just talk. His Advanced Energy Initiative requests less than $500 million for alternatives to oil, a relative drop in the bucket. It also pushes for drilling in ANWR, which the Department of Energy estimates won't add one drop to domestic oil production before 2013, and will do little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Meanwhile, small-budget conservation programs with a proven track record of success are on the cutting block. And the administration's investments in alternative energy pale compared to the breaks they've given the oil industry. President Bush is confronting our addiction to oil like an alcoholic who tries to kick the habit by adding ice to his drink.

A leader with real vision would see the opportunity behind the looming crisis, and rush to embrace it. As global demand for energy outstrips production, new markets for alternative energy technology will open up. U.S. innovators are poised to claim these markets, if they receive the funding necessary to push cutting-edge technology out of the laboratory. Researchers at New Mexico State University and Wake Forest have put nanotechnology to use creating organic solar cells, which have myriad consumer, commercial, and even military applications. University of Minnesota professor Lanny Schmidt has developed technology which may bring fuel-cell powered transportation to market years earlier than previously thought, by extracting hydrogen from ethanol. Of course ethanol is already in millions of cars today, and cellulosic ethanol can be produced from biomass more cheaply, cleanly and efficiently than gasoline.

An energy policy based on biomass benefits American farmers as well as American innovators. Moreover, if ethanol from biomass can easily be converted to hydrogen for fuel-cell power, biomass can literally drive everything, from our cars to our furnaces to the generators which power our electrical grid --- if organic solar cells don't render the electrical grid obsolete. And for icing on the cake, replacing our existing carbon-intensive fuels with these zero-carbon and carbon-neutral technologies will slow the effects of global warming.

Skeptics will argue that we could never produce enough ethanol to equal our gasoline consumption. But one major industrialized nation already has done it: Brazil is on track to free itself from dependence on imported oil by the end of the year. Indeed, Brazil's sugar-based ethanol industry has been a victim of its own success, with demand for the fuel outstripping the supply. The road of revolutionary change is always rocky; the market in gasoline suffered precipitous swings between scarcity and glut on its way to becoming the dominant economic force in the world. Breaking our addiction to oil will bring some temporary withdrawal symptoms. But the world is at or near peak oil production (and coal and natural gas and uranium . . .); it is not a question of whether we adopt an alternative energy strategy, but when. And the sooner the better.

A race is starting to develop the cheapest, cleanest, most efficient means of renewable energy production. In the end, we all win with a cleaner, greener earth, but the first to the finish line will reap an economic windfall as well. America ushered in both the nuclear age and the space age: it's time to put the full faith and credit of the United States behind the technology boom of the 21st century.

Co-written by Coleen Rowley, Candidate for Congress in Minnesota's 2nd District and David Bailey, researcher and writer for the campaign.