President Switchgrass

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

Published February 1, 2006 8:45PM (EST)

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.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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Globalization How The World Works State Of The Union