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The Guardian: Bush fuels the debate

Friday February 3, 2006
President Bush's strong espousal of alternative fuels such as cellulosic ethanol as a way of weaning America off its dependency on Middle East oil should be warmly applauded. The president has often made reference to oil in previous State of the Union addresses but not by endorsing a particular solution with such enthusiasm and never with a specific target in mind: to cut dependence on Middle East oil by 75% by 2025. It would have been even better if Mr Bush had worked with the international community to reduce oil dependence and to combat global warming, but this move at least shows that the US could make a significant contribution on a unilateral basis. It now remains for Mr Bush to prove that this was not just a headline-grabbing initiative that will be quietly forgotten like others in the past. The fact that he is only putting $150m behind it next year does not bode well, but it does not mean it will not happen. The striking thing is that Mr Bush has singled out cellulosic ethanols that are derived from waste wood chips and stalks rather than corn-based ethanols which are more energy-intensive in their production. Unlike some other parts of the world where ethanol production is at the expense of cutting down forests, the US has plenty of land to utilise.
Mr Bush has been thinking big. If he wants to think laterally as well he should abandon controversial farm subsidies (supposedly covered by the derailed international trade talks) exempting only farms switching to cellulosic ethanol or other approved fuels. This could trigger a big rise in output without extra government outlays. It also offers scope for growing GM crops uncontroversially if done in faraway fields and destined for refineries, not the dining table. But increased reliance on biomasses will only slow the growth of oil consumption, not cut it drastically. There is a chance here for the oil industry which has been riding on the back of the shortages by making excess profits, including Shell's £13bn announced yesterday. It would mitigate some of the bad publicity, besides doing them a favour for the future, if they ploughed back more of those profits into alternative fuels. It remains a moot point whether heavy investment in alternatives will remove the need for a nuclear expansion unless accompanied by measures to cut demand and use existing energy supplies better. The key question our government must ask before authorising more nuclear stations is what would the same amount of money – many billions – do if invested in alternative fuels. President Bush has given us a big clue.

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