Bush's cellulosic ethanol road show

The president is all smiles as he hypes biofuels in North Carolina, but his budget requests tell a different story.

Published February 23, 2007 12:01AM (EST)

Jocularity reigned in Franklinton, N.C., on Thursday, when President Bush visited the offices of Novozymes North America to tout the wonders of cellulosic ethanol -- that as yet commercially unproven technology that promises to convert fibrous plant matter into biofuel. Novozymes is a Danish company that specializes in the industrial production of enzymes for a variety of biotechnological uses.

The Houston Chronicle included some snippets of Bush's remarks as he "moderated" a panel on cellulosic ethanol, informing us that Bush is hip to the whole food vs. fuel angle on corn-based ethanol: "The problem is we've got a lot of hog growers around the United States, and a lot of them in North Carolina, who are beginning to feel the pinch as a result of high corn prices ... The question, then, is how do you achieve your goal of less dependence on oil without breaking your ... hog farmers? Here's how: You develop new technologies that will enable you to make ethanol from wood chips, or stalk grass or agriculture waste."

But to get the full flavor of the laff riot that was Bush's appearance you need to read the transcript published in the Congressional Quarterly. Talk about your receptive audiences -- the man could hardly get two words out without the audience erupting into chortles of glee.

A representative section came when President Bush introduced Michael Pacheco, the director of the National Bioenergy Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., the Department of Energy's premier institution for conducting research into cellulosic technology.

BUSH: I met Dr. Mike in Greeley, Colorado, a year ago.

MIKE PACHECO: Golden, Colorado.

BUSH: Golden -- exactly; Golden, Colorado.


PACHECO: Thank you.

BUSH: How quickly they forget. Anyway...


I am 60.


What's really funny is how neither man mentions the embarrassing circumstances of Bush's visit, just a few days after his 2006 State of the Union address, in which he announced his Advanced Energy Initiative. Budget cuts in NREL's 2006 budget had just kicked in, resulting in nearly 30 layoffs, and Bush had to scramble to get a $5 million check cut on the fly so the scientists could be rehired and Bush could stop in to tout his new initiative without looking like a complete idiot. How quickly they forget, indeed!

A few minutes later, Bush introduces Ratna Sharma, an assistant professor in bioprocess engineering at N.C. State University. Sharma talks a little about his work, and then, in reference to Bush's ambitious call to ramp up ethanol production in the next decade, she sensibly observes: "We do need more investment and funding support, definitely, to speed up this process of achieving this goal in 10 years."

After a little back and forth, Bush says, "Talk to my man Michael. He's the guy distributing some of the money."


Maybe the assembled audience was laughing so hard because otherwise they would burst into tears. Let's take a closer look at the actual budget figures for NREL over the past five years. According to the Denver Post, Bush's 2008 budget allocates $181.5 million for NREL. That's actually 3 percent less than Bush asked for in 2007, although it is a tick up from the $174 million allocated in 2006. In 2003, by comparison, NREL's budget was $229.5 million.

Meanwhile, in 2008, Bush asked for a 38 percent increase in spending on nuclear energy research -- to $875 million -- and a 33 percent increase in spending on fossil energy fuels -- to $863 million.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

UPDATE: I mistakenly referred to Ratna Sharma as "he" in my original post. He turns out to be she.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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