President Switchgrass

Alternate energy universe: Bush and Berkeley researchers walk hand-in-hand.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works, State of the Union,

President Bush’s speechwriters must be reading Salon. Last Friday, How the World Works covered the recently published findings of University of California at Berkeley researchers who were investigating the energy efficiency of biofuels. As part of their conclusions, the researchers noted that some of the best results came not from biofuels derived from corn or soybeans, but from switchgrass. Getting those results on a commercial basis, however, would require advances in “cellulosic technology” to enable the successful processing of woody plant fibers and other forms of farm waste.

And there the president was, mentioning switchgrass in his speech Tuesday night. Even more amazingly, the details of his Advanced Energy Initiative specifically referenced cellulosic technology. From a Salon blog to the State of the Union — spooky, very spooky.

Switchgrass is pretty neat stuff — indigenous to the Great Plains, able to thrive in poor soils, ecologically sustainable in a way that corn and soybeans are not. But excuse us for being suspicious that the president’s piddling funding proposals for additional research will goose its development in any truly signficant fashion. If one were predisposed to be cynical, one might suspect that the bulk of administration action likely to be taken in the future with regard to renewable biofuels will be the same old same old — subsidies to the powerful corn and soybean lobbies.

Last year’s National Energy Bill mandated the production of 8 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2012. No doubt Archer Daniels Midland and Midwestern corn farmers were overjoyed at the prospect. With Minnesota leading the way, and Iowa and Wisconsin likely to follow closely, the big corn-growing states have been aggressively passing mandates requiring percentages of ethanol be blended into the gasoline sold in their states. (Minnesota currently requires a 10 percent ethanol blend, and last year passed a law bouncing it up to 20 percent by 2013.)

Depending on whom you talk to, the production of ethanol from corn is a pretty nasty business — as one Salon reader pointed out last week, Minnesota’s ethanol processing plants have been found guilty of fairly severe violations of Clean Air laws. Can we count on the Bush administration to ensure that the boost it gives to ethanol production will be environmentally responsible? Did I really even ask that question?

As numerous observers have pointed out, if Bush really wanted to decrease our foreign dependence on oil, he could achieve more with one stroke by requiring significantly higher fuel-economy standards than by virtually any other short-term method. Or, if he really wanted to make a splash, he could take a page from California’s book, and propose a really robust national version of the California Solar Power Initiative, a $2.8 billion program that should be a government model for how to really push renewable energy, instead of the State of the Union’s pallid offering.

Of course doing that would mean setting himself squarely against Big Oil, rather than just handing out a few more dollars to friendly agribusinesses. And it would mean finding some real money to pay for real change, which, given the war in Iraq and his program of tax cuts, is pretty scarce right now. So, hey, we’re glad to see the president give a shout out to switchgrass, but excuse us for not dancing a jig.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>