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Waiting for the numbers

At a time when Washington leaders earn low public respect, Senator Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and once chaired the Agriculture Committee is regarded by members of both political parties as a man of principles and integrity.

For a decade Lugar has fought for more public support to wean Americans away from dependence on foreign oil, often introducing bills to do that with the support of Iowa's Senator Tom Harkin, the Democrat who succeeded Lugar as head of the Ag Committee and who got an energy title included in the 2002 Farm Bill.

Lugar practices what he preaches. He drives a Toyota Prius, a hybrid that uses modest amounts of gasoline.

On Monday, Lugar and Harkin will be watching to see if President Bush lives up to his promises made in the State of the Union Address to lower U.S. dependence on oil imports.

The "Biorefinery Initiative" Bush announced, $150 million for research on ethanol made from cellulose in plants, is actually less than the $200 million that Lugar and Harkin got their fellow members of Congress to include in the Energy Bill passed last year.

"We'll be looking Monday when the budget comes out [to see] where the number is and hopefully it's a significant increase," Lugar's spokesman, Andy Fisher told Agriculture Online.

"This is a real course change for the Bush Administration and the policy of the country because it was a decade ago when we had the hearings [on U.S. energy dependence]," Fisher says.

In 2000, Lugar and Harkin wrote the Biomass Research and Development Act, which has sponsored research funded by the Department of Energy and USDA. At first it authorized Congressional spending for biomass research at $49 million a year. Congress didn't actually appropriate that much, with no spending in 2001 or 2002, $5 million in 2003 and between $12 and $14 million a year after that,. It could have voted to spend up to $200 million this year on that program after the Energy Bill was passed.

Congress, not the President, ultimately decides how much is spent on research on new fuels. But supporters of biomass and cellulosic ethanol would like to see the President pushing harder for such programs in his own budget.

Talking to reporters Thursday, Harkin was even more blunt than Lugar's staff on Bush's commitment to energy independence. In all five of the President's State of the Union speeches he's called for lowering dependence on foreign oil and it still goes up each year, Harkin said.

Of the Biorefinery Initiative, Harkin said, "It's a fine objective. I couldn't support it more strongly."

"Based on past experience, I'm skeptical," Harkin added.

In fact, Harkin would like to see billions, not a few million dollars spent on research on alternative fuels made from crops and timber wastes.

"We need a Manhattan Project or an Apollo-type program," he said.

For now, though, Lugar and Harkin have more modest hopes.

"If the President is really serious about this, all he has to do is fund what is already in the Energy Bill," says Harkin’s press aide, Dave Townsend.

Harkin and Lugar have also introduced a bill that would require automakers to make all vehicles capable of burning 85% ethanol, or E-85, in 10 years. To make such "flex-fuel" vehicles costs about $100 to $150. It's called the Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act, or S. 2025, and has bipartisan backing in the Senate.

On Thursday, Lugar and Harkin wrote oil company executives urging them to support a transition to renewable fuels.

"It is obvious we also need many more service station pumps supplying E-85, since there are only 600 of them in the entire United States," they said in the letter. "We would like to work with you to increase the availability of E-85 pumps substantially in order to supply the increasing demand for this fuel."

They also mentioned obstacles retailers have found to selling E-85. "We have been informed, for example, that some company policies and practices prohibit dealers from selling E-85 or require that it be offered to consumers at separate fuel pump islands away from the branded fuel offerings."

At a time when Washington leaders earn low public respect, Senator Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and once chaired the Agriculture Committee is regarded by members of both political parties as a man of principles and integrity.

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