Obama comes out swinging for advanced biofuels

March 31, 2011 |

Obama sets US goal of cutting US oil imports one-third by 2025; outlines vision, targets, support for advanced biofuels, renewables, fossil fuel production in Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future.

In Washington, President Obama gave an address at Georgetown University in which he called for a goal of reducing US oil imports by one-third by 2025, with increased support for technologies that can assist in that transition, including advanced biofuels.

“We meet here at a tumultuous time for the world,” the President said, noting the situation in Japan, Libya, and Syria. “One big area of concern has been the cost and security of our energy…Families feel the pinch when they fill up their tank.  For Americans already struggling to get by, a hike in gas prices hurts.”

“But here’s the thing – we’ve been down this road before.  Remember, it was just three years ago that gas prices topped $4 a gallon…We cannot keep going from shock to trance on the issue of energy security, rushing to propose action when gas prices rise, then hitting the snooze button when they fall again.  The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity and security on a resource that will eventually run out.  Even before we run out, the prices will be too high.”

And with that, the President turned to an unveiling of his clean energy policy, the Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future. It’s an ambitious 44-page outline of an ambitious program, which includes investments in smart grid electric infrastructure, highways, high-speed rail, public transit, expanded oil & gas exploration, as well as  biofuels-related measures including advanced biofuels R&D, blender pumps and increased flex-fuel car purchases.

Here’s the Blueprint in full.

Here’s the text of the President’s speech, in full.

Highlights from the Blueprint

“Continuing investments in R&D will be critical to the deployment of new technology and meeting the transportation needs of Americans. Recovery Act and prior year investments are already making progress on advanced technology vehicles through research initiatives like an ARPA-E grant with the goal of developing a battery that will go 300 miles on a single charge or cost-competitive biofuels that are direct substitutes for gasoline. The FY 2012 Budget request will significantly broaden R&D investments in advanced biofuels and batteries and electric drive technologies – including an over 30% increase in support for vehicle technology R&D and a new Energy Innovation Hub devoted to improving battery energy storage for vehicles.”

“Corn ethanol is already making a significant contribution to reducing our oil dependence, but going a lot further will depend on taking promising cellulosic and advanced biofuels technologies to scale. To help advance the commercialization process, the Administration has set a goal of breaking ground on at least four commercial-scale cellulosic or advanced bio-refineries over the next two years. In addition, the President has challenged his Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy and the Navy to investigate how they can work together to speed the development of “drop-in” biofuels substitutes for diesel and jet fuel. Competitively-priced drop-in biofuels could help meet the fuel needs of the Navy, as well as the commercial aviation and shipping sectors.”

“The United States has worked with international partners to promote the benefits of sustainable modern bioenergy. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States collaborates with Brazil to help a number of countries develop bioenergy programs that promote economic development and energy security. In the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization, the United States has led work to identify sustainable biofuel development practices, resource potential, and employment potential. In addition, as an active member of the Global Bioenergy Partnership, the United States worked with multiple nations and UN international organizations to develop indicators that will enable developing countries can use to ensure that are developing bioenergy in a sustainable manner.

“The FY 2012 Budget also marks a ground breaking commitment to expand transit options for Americans and return transit systems to a state of good repair. The Administration supports these commitments with the aim of making public transit systems accessible to more people, and to ensure that these systems are more reliable, efficient, and safe for the millions of travelers who use them every day. These investments will ultimately provide Americans with affordable transportation options that help reduce dependence on gasoline.”

The Digest’s Take

The headline, of course, is reducing oil imports by one-third by 2025. The speech, while highly welcome in tone and outlook, was a little short on new specifics, and sounded more like a rah-rah to build support for the 2012 Budget, showcasing existing measures in support of the 2025 goal.

However, fair to say that no President has, by a long shot, done as much to design a comprehensive national energy policy. So kudos to the White House team.

The trick though, is not figuring out what to do – there have been dozens of studies and proposals from private foundations, NGOs and pressure groups.

The trick is assembling a political coalition that gets the job done. That’s what separates an FDR from a Hoover on addressing the Great Depression, or a Kennedy/Johnson from an Eisenhower on addressing space exploration, or Reagan from Carter on ending the cold war.

We don’t yet see the grand coalition forming, but we do note the evolution of the President’s vision, since 2008, to include more emphasis on energy independence and less on carbon, more emphasis on domestic fossil fuel and nuclear production than in the past. What we begin to see is supply-side energy economics, instead of simply a reform of the means of production.

The President has embraced an American “more” over a European “better”, and “more” offers the kind of opportunities that can build support in the Congress. Of course, the President’s “more” is a “better more”, because of the emphasis on clean energy.

But in the “better” vs. “more”, equation, the President has finally figured it out. To build the economy, he better have more, no matter how much better.

Quibbles?

We are left to guess whether “we’ll help entrepreneurs break ground on four next-generation biorefineries,” refers to existing commitments, or new ones. Probably the former, kind of a double dip on publicity.

We did not see commitments from the President on mandating the manufacture of flex-fuel cars, or proposed investments in ethanol pipelines. Clearly, the President’s strategy is based around growth in advanced biofuels, particularly drop-in biofuels. He’s getting behind blender pumps, but leaving other investments in infrastructure to the private sector.

Things to admire

We are impressed by the fact that the White House “gets it” that we are not experiencing volatile oil prices — we are experiencing a real ceiling to growth, as too many economies are chasing too little oil, and economic growth pushes up energy prices too fast to sustain economic expansion.

We were impressed by the President’s goal of making the US federal government auto fleet purchasing 100 percent renewables, by 2015. It can only help spur usage and acceptance of flex-fuel cars, hybrids and plug-in electrics, and reduce dependence on imported oil.

The President clearly linked an investment in electric cars to investments in wind, solar, biomass, nuclear, and clean coal (if there really is clean coal, we’re not quite sure how clean it can get on an affordable basis, though it’s a laudable goal). Electric cars without renewable power simply change the mix of fossil fuels used for transport from petroleum to, basically, coal and nuclear – domestically produced, but not carbon darlings.

Industry reaction

Comments from the Advanced Biofuels Association, the Algal Biomass Organization, 25×25, Growth Energy, Sapphire Energy, Propel Fuels and more, here.

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