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President's boost to ethanol research is greeted warmly

Agriculture.com Staff 02/01/2006 @ 1:21pm

For years R. James Woolsey has worried about American dependence on oil imported from the Middle East. As the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency explained to a Senate committee last fall, it wouldn't take much for that dependency to weaken our economy - a sophisticated attack on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline or a Gulf Coast refinery or the takeover of a Middle Eastern nation by a radical regime.

Tuesday night, Woolsey saw an important shift toward renewable fuels in President George W. Bush's State of the Union Address. The President acknowledged that "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."

And he promised something like a federal nicotine patch for a nation of oil addicts, an expanded research program called the Advanced Energy Initiative.

Bush will ask Congress to spend more in 2007 on research to make ethanol "not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass."

He drew applause when he announced a goal of replacing "more than 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025."

Woolsey seems pleased.

"The key thing is he's now put the authority of the presidency behind moving away from oil," he told Agriculture Online Wednesday.

Woolsey said he's glad Bush mentioned research on cellulosic ethanol made from plants and wood wastes and on improving batteries for plug-in fuel-electric hybrid cars. He was disappointed that Bush didn't say anything about using wasted animal fats to make biodiesel.

Cutting oil imports from the Middle East turns out to be a smaller reduction in liquid fuel use than you might think.

The U.S. imports about 60% of its petroleum used for fuel. But a relatively small share is from the Middle East. It's about 11% of total U.S. oil consumption, so a 75% reduction in Middle East imports will amount to about 8% less oil consumption.

That's still three times as much as the U.S. would have gained by opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, Woolsey said.

"The goal is modest numerically but the direction is right," said Woolsey, who currently is a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and a member of the National Commission on Energy Policy.

The goal was also greeted enthusiastically by the 20 x '25 Working Group, an agricultural interest group that wants 25% of all of the nation's energy to come from renewable fuels by the year 2025.

"Just three or four years ago it would have been unheard of for a president to take time in a state of union address to talk about renewable energy," said Bill Horan, a Rockwell City, Iowa corn and soybean farmer who is on the Working Group's steering committee.

"I think for agriculture in general and for rural America in general, it's a huge step forward," Horan said. Like most state of the union addresses, last night's was short on specifics and Horan said he's looking forward to seeing more details in the President's budget. But he regards the new emphasis as good news for farmers and ranchers.

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