Grass Gas? It Takes an Oil Man to Give Biofuels A Chance

What’s Jim Woolsey, the former director of Central Intelligence, doing with an Oklahoma oil man trying to figure out how to turn grass into gas?

Easy. He’s trying to Set America Free (.org). It’s a matter of national security. If Jim Woolsey and David Fleischaker have their way, 25 percent of what you and I pump in our tanks by 2025 will be gas made from cellulose – which is, for us city kids, woody plant material, prairie grass, crop residue (what’s left after you harvest the crops), forest residue, even material from trees.

I remember many campaigns ago, writing speeches about biofuels that came to naught. I remember many public affairs shows ago, seeing advertisements for ethanol that cost a very pretty penny to produce.

This week, I learned that times have changed. My friend David has spent 20 years drilling for oil in the ground. Now, as the visionary secretary of energy of the state of Oklahoma, he is convinced it is the time to grow crops to make gas.

That’s right. You grow crops to make gas.

“The thoughtful guys in my business are very concerned about replacing reserves,” he said.

They can’t do it, not by conventional means. Oil production in this country peaked in the 1970’s, and has decreased every year since. In the 1970’s we imported 30 percent of our oil from foreign countries. Today, we import 60 percent— 40 percent from hostile countries.

Say what you will about George W. Bush, and I won’t say much that’s very nice, but give him credit for this; just as it took Nixon to go to China, it took an oil man to admit that we are addicted to foreign oil and like any addict, the burden is on us to break that addiction.

How do we do it without fundamentally changing the American way of life? We need a fuel that will use the infrastructure we have, the filling stations we have, the engines we have, in order to make the substitution efficient.

Hydrogen is not that fuel: converting water to hydrogen involves a process that is extremely expensive, for one; moreover, there are significant transportation problems – how do you get the hydrogen to the consumer, not to mention the new engines that would be required in cars and trucks, and the new filling stations that would be required on ever corner in the country.

Grass requires no new infrastructure. It would use the filling stations we already have, the engines we already have. It would allow those states with dying lumber industries a second lease on life. Tobacco farmers could grow switch grass instead of tobacco.

In April 2005, a joint study of the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture, aptly named the Billion Ton study, concluded that we have enough biomass – or at least that we have the capacity to produce enough – to replace 30 percent of our energy capacity, enough to produce 1.3 billion tons to convert without any impact on the food supply.

No one knows better than an oil man how hard it is to find a barrel of oil, David says. He is leading a crusade. The day I was with him, he was on his way to the daily Oklahoman, to try to convince them that the time had come. Not easy.

There are a lot of farmers in Oklahoma who have heard this before. They remember all the talk in the past, the false starts, and they want to know why this is different.

David is ready. He has the stats: why this is the perfect storm, what with higher oil prices and decreasing domestic supply, growing demand as 3.2 billion people from new markets in China and India come to the table; how it is that prairie grass grows year round and actually enriches the soil, one of those benefits that is somewhat lost on me but has been important in some of the editorial boards around the state where David and his agronomist have been taking their message.

For farmers, it is both an opportunity and a risk. Venture capitalists are already hovering, trying to figure out where the fortunes will be made. A plant is opening in Idaho in the near future. There are a number of organizations that are supporting ambitious goals for what percent of our gasoline will be biofuels.

You might expect more political leadership given the importance of the issue, but politicians these days tend to be like CEO’s, unable to see beyond the next poll and the next election, and 2025 may be just too far for those aspiring for the top. Or not.

Happy New Year to our Jewish Readers....

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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