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President's boost to ethanol research is greeted warmly

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.

"The planets have aligned," he said. "We can produce anything in rural America that petroleum produces, from plastics to clothing to fuel."

Both Horan and Woolsey are enthusiastic about Bush's renewed emphasis on making ethanol from waste products such as wood chips and corn stalks. They don't see cellulose replacing corn as a source of ethanol, but instead adding to it. "We've got plenty of corn stover out there, too," Horan said.

Woolsey thinks cellulosic ethanol, which is already being made in pilot plants, will be commercialized sooner than in the six years President Bush is aiming for.

"The Wright Brothers have already flown here. We don't need a Manhattan Project to invent the product," Woolsey said.

Ultimately, Woolsey sees a vast new industry for rural America as cellulosic ethanol plants become more efficient and move beyond using waste products. Eventually, larger plants will be supplied by farmers raising switchgrass or other prairie grasses.

As cars and trucks become more fuel-efficient, and as grass yields improve with better breeding, about half of the nation's gasoline use could be replaced by 30 million acres of biomass, or cellulose.

That's about what's in the Conservation Reserve Program today, he said.

"We're not talking about rocket science, we're talking about farmers mowing their hay," he said.

In the short run, President Bush's proposals for energy research mentioned Tuesday are modest compared to the billions spent on farm commodity programs. But his proposals are for substantial increases in a budget that is likely to cut many other domestic programs. It will include $150 million for research on cellulosic ethanol, a $59 million increase from the current fiscal year. And it will include $30 million for research on battery technology for hybrid vehicles, an increase of $6.7 million.

More of the President's Advanced Energy Initiative is described on this page on the White House Web site: www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/01/20060131-6.html

For more information on the National Commission on Energy Policy visit: energycommission.org

For more on the 25 x '25 Working Group see: agenergy.info

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.

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