WASHINGTON – Trying to draw attention to his domestic agenda, President Bush on Thursday extolled the science of turning grasses and wood chips into ethanol to lessen the U.S. thirst for foreign oil.
"If you really want to reduce the amount of oil that you consume, you have to reduce the amount of gasoline you use," Bush said on a road trip to push energy initiatives he announced last month in his State of the Union address.
Bush has proposed ramping up the production of alternative fuels such as ethanol made from something other than corn. The president wants to require the use of 35 billion gallons a year of ethanol and other alternative fuels, such as soybean-based biodiesel, by 2017 — a fivefold increase over current requirements.
The call for sharp increases in ethanol use will get bipartisan support in Congress. But production of ethanol from corn is expected to fall far short of meeting such an increase. So Bush envisions a major speedup of research into production of "cellulosic" ethanol made from wood chips, switchgrass and other feedstocks.
Each year, the United States consumes about 7 billion gallons of ethanol, made primarily from corn. The demand for corn for agricultural uses as well as energy, however, is causing corn prices to rise.
"The problem is we've got a lot of hog growers around the United States, and a lot of them in North Carolina, who are beginning to feel the pinch as a result of high corn prices," said Bush, who participated in a panel on cellulosic ethanol at Novozymes North America Inc., which is researching enzymes to break down crops such as corn waste and spruce chips to produce ethanol.
"The question, then, is how do you achieve your goal of less dependence on oil without breaking your ... hog farmers?" Bush said. "Here's how: You develop new technologies that will enable you to make ethanol from wood chips, or stalk grass or agriculture waste."
Bush also said that a lot of private money is being invested in new energy technologies, and the federal government is spending money to develop new battery technology that will allow motorists to drive short distances on battery power instead of gasoline.
"Someday you're going to be able to get in your car, particularly if you're a big city person, and drive 40 miles on a battery," he said. "And by the way, your car doesn't have to look like a golf cart. It could be a pickup truck.
"That technology is around the corner, and if we're able to drive the first 40 miles, or say 20 miles ... there are a lot of city folks who won't have to use a drop of gasoline on a daily basis."
Before the panel discussion, Bush toured laboratories at Novozymes. In one room, the president held up a beaker of nearly complete ethanol, sniffed it and laughed: "I quit drinking in 1986," he said.
Then he turned serious. "Someday you're going to be able to use this in your car," Bush said.
Outside, Bush was shown a blue and green stock car that runs on ethanol. He leaned down and fiddled with the wheel a couple times, but didn't climb down into the tiny driver's seat.