Breaking the Oil Addiction

(By Norman Dean) Our country is addicted to oil, and we are paying a fearful price. Our profligate use of petroleum contributes to air pollution, urban smog and global warming.

Our country is addicted to oil, and we are paying a fearful price. Our profligate use of petroleum contributes to air pollution, urban smog and global warming. Our addiction leaves us dependant on relatively unstable foreign sources of supply. And, it increases the pressure for oil and gas exploration in sensitive areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the front range of the Rockies.

We must end this addiction. There are several possible substitutes for oil as a transportation fuel, each of which has its advantages and disadvantages. But for the last fifteen years, we have made far too little effort to develop these less damaging alternatives. Less than 2% of the fuels used in transportation come from non-petroleum sources -- most of it from ethanol produced from corn.

By far the most attractive alternative is using hydrogen to power vehicles because hydrogen is nonpolluting when burned. But implementing a hydrogen based transportation system will take 25 to 50 years. Several of the proposed technologies for mass production of hydrogen involve environmentally risky use of nuclear power or coal -- so-called "black hydrogen." The "greener" hydrogen technologies, based on windpower, solar and other renewables, are not yet cost effective. Moreover, it will take years and billions of dollars to install hydrogen fueling stations across the country. In short, we need to look elsewhere while further work is done on a possible "green" hydrogen future.

We could power our cars with electricity using electric cars or gas electric hybrids that plug into the electricity grid. But as with hydrogen, running our cars on electricity only makes sense if the electricity is produced from an alternative source such as wind or solar power. Otherwise, we will simply be fueling our cars on the fossil fuels being burned at power plants, losing as much as two thirds of the energy during the production and transmission of the electricity.

At the nation’s fuel pumps today, ethanol produced from corn is the most widely used non-petroleum fuel. Corn based ethanol reduces our dependence on foreign fuel sources but it requires significant energy, fertilizer and water to produce and is only 20% better than gasoline in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Producing large amounts of ethanol from corn perpetuates the system of agricultural monoculture that is polluting streams and rivers. And, according to recent estimates, it also costs significantly more to produce than gasoline.

Corn-based ethanol is only one of several plant-based alternatives to oil. Using agricultural waste and used cooking oil from restaurants, we can generate biodiesel fuel. (People report that cars burning biodiesel sometimes smell like French fries.) There is a growing interest in biodiesel in the agricultural states. Minnesota recently mandated that all diesel fuel sold in that state must contain at least two percent biodiesel. According to a recent report from the National Commission on Energy Policy, biodiesel will have a niche in the non-petroleum future, but is unlikely to become economic on a large scale.

Current research suggests that the best plant-based, short-term alternative to oil is ethanol produced from cellulose. We can make cellulosic ethanol from fast growing crops like switch grass or willow trees, or from agricultural waste like rice hull. Ethanol from cellulose has several advantages over the corn based fuel. It can theoretically cut greenhouse gas pollution by almost 100% and may be much cheaper to produce. Since there are more sources of cellulose, this fuel is less likely to compete for cropland. And it may be possible to produce cellulosic ethanol for less than the cost of gasoline.

We can break our addiction to oil but it will take both significant changes in policy and substantial investments.

We can start by using less fuel for transportation. At current rates of petroleum consumption, it is difficult to imagine utilizing enough cropland, or increasing the productivity of cellulosic sources enough to end our addiction to oil. The nation needs to mandate more efficient vehicles. Existing technology can easily double the fuel efficiency of cars.

Second, we should establish a target of replacing half of all gasoline and diesel with renewable, environmentally sound alternatives by the year 2030.

Third, we should move agricultural subsidies from food crops to biofuels. This shift would provide a powerful incentive for developing alternative fuels, and would have the added advantage of reforming the current agricultural subsidy system that encourages artificially low food prices in the U.S. and undermines farmers in developing countries.

Finally, we should be making major investments in alternative fuels. It’s true that the most recent Bush budget projects huge increases in the federal deficit, and would appear to preclude substantial new investments in anything. But failing to develop alternative fuels as quickly as possible will cost us far more in the long run. A $5 billion, ten-year research and development effort could easily be justified given the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to preserve stability in the Middle East, the price of damage from global warming, the ongoing healthcare costs from smog and other air pollution, and all the other indirect costs of using oil. A crash alternative fuels program is one of the most important investments we could make to strengthen our country and improve our environment in the 21st century.


Norman L. Dean is executive director of Friends of the Earth and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

If your organization or business would like to participate in the ENN Commentary Series, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Publisher of the Environmental News Network: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Source: An ENN Commentary