"Switchgrass is cool, dude"

A House hearing on energy development shockingly features politicians asking experts substantive questions about ethanol and peak oil.

By Andrew Leonard
March 2, 2007 4:52AM (UTC)
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The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee is a center of U.S. research into renewable energy, including cellulosic technology, the current holy grail of biofuel dreamers who want to cheaply transform fibrous plant matter into ethanol. Maybe that's why when the topic of switchgrass came up during a Wednesday congressional hearing on energy research and development, Republican Rep. Zach Wamp, whose district is in East Tennessee, was delighted to display some expertise on the subject.

"What is switchgrass? It's a bio-stock," said Wamp, as transcribed by Congressional Quarterly. "It's a feed stock. It grew naturally before we got here, dude. We cut it all down. We need to grow it back in the South. And it will replace tobacco and soybean and a bunch of things. It's really pretty cool. A great feed stock for cellulosic ethanol. And if we took 35 to 40 million acres through the Farm Bill and have an energy title, we could grow cellulosic ethanol and in five years begin seriously changing the fuel consumption in this country with E-85 at the pump and save Ford and G.M."


(E-85 refers to gasoline that is 85 percent ethanol. By "energy title" one assumes that Wamp is suggesting that the Farm Bill should create incentives to dedicate agricultural production toward cellulosic feed stocks, thus weaning the country off its burgeoning, but likely unsustainable, corn-based ethanol habit.)

On Wednesday, the Department of Energy announced that it was investing $385 million into six cellulosic ethanol biorefineries over the next four years. Reference to this announcement was made several times during the subcommittee hearing, sometimes skeptically, by panelists and politicians who claimed that they'd been hearing optimistic predictions about the imminent arrival of cellulosic technology for 30 years. But that was only one subplot in a hearing that ranged far and wide in its discussion of energy issues in the U.S. After preliminary reports from Guy Caruso, administrator of the Energy Information Agency, and Jim Wells, director for natural resources and the environment at the Government Accountability Office, the subcommittee heard testimony from a panel of expert witnesses, including Dan Kammen, the co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment at U.C. Berkeley, the Natural Resources Defense Council's David Hawkins, and MIT physics professor Ernest Moniz.

Some of the testimony was grim: U.S. energy consumption is likely to grow by about 30 percent in the next 25 years, said Caruso. Meanwhile, said the GAO's Wells, "Renewables were 6 percent of the energy provided in 1978. They're 6 percent today. Our transportation sector was 96 percent dependent on oil in 1978. Today that number is 98 percent. We are importing almost 66 percent of our oil needs. Not too many years ago it was 30 percent."


Some was more optimistic. Caruso testified that in 1973, if you had predicted how much energy the U.S. would be consuming in 2007, and then compared it to what the U.S. actually did consume, you would find that the country ended up consuming 86 percent less than what would have been projected -- mostly because of dramatic improvements in energy efficiency.

In fact, if there was a consensus on anything at the hearing, in which testimony was heard on prospects for nuclear, solar, geothermal and wind power, along with biofuels, it was that federal and state governments get by far the most bang for their buck by setting, enforcing and encouraging increased energy efficiency. Changing building codes and requiring ever more efficient performance from new machinery is cheap. As one panelist, energy consultant David Nemtzow, observed, if you treated the energy savings from efficiency as an energy source, you would see that "energy efficiency is the number one energy resource in this country, number one ahead of oil, ahead of gas or coal or nuclear or any of the others."

A second clear imperative to emerge from the hearing was that attacking the nation's energy problems through a myriad of targeted incentives and state and federal programs was likely to be confusing and wasteful. Finding ways to encourage homeowners to install solar powered water heaters, or shifting the U.S. Postal Service fleet to plug-in hybrids is all very well and good, but the best strategy government could take to address both energy security needs and the challenge of climate change would be to impose some kind of carbon tax, perhaps along the lines of California's recently enacted Low Carbon Fuel Initiative. Only when the external costs of climate change and fossil fuel dependency become shared by individuals filling up their gas tanks and utility companies building coal-fired power plants will there be a real market incentive to deploy new technologies.


The journey from a subcommittee hearing to federal carbon tax legislation will be a long one, and likely require a different president than the current occupant of the White House, but reading the transcript of this hearing, I felt more positively inclined toward my government than I have in quite some time. Sure, there was some political grandstanding, particularly by the ranking Republican on the committee, Ohio's David Hobson, who had some strong feelings on how he felt "enviros" were holding back nuclear power, but by and large this was an example of how you want your government to work. Engaged politicians addressing reasonably informed questions on how best to spend money on energy development to actual experts.

There was even a titillating little bit about a new report on peak oil that had been completed by the GAO and handed over to Maryland Republican Roscoe Bartlett and to the House Science Committee. The GAO's Wells said that the report had come to an estimation of what the "consensus" view was on the likely arrival of peak oil, but he frustrated his audience by refusing to tell them exactly what the date was. GAO rules, he said, mandate that the "requesters" of a GAO study get to sit on the information for a maximum of 30 days before the report must be made public.


To which subcommittee member Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, responded: "I just returned from China with Mr. Bartlett on an energy security congressional delegation meeting. And my sense is that Mr. Bartlett will not let much time go by before he speaks rather loudly about this issue. By the time we were finished, the Chinese government thought his name was peak oil."

As the esteemed Republican representative from East Tennessee might say, "Cool, duuuude."

Andrew Leonard

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

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