Biofuel Options Should Be Explored

Posted March 2, 2007 at 12:05pm

Should the U.S. fuel industry become more reliant on ethanol? The short answer to this question is an emphatic “yes!” But we also must be sure not to become overly reliant on just corn-based ethanol. H.R. 670, the Dependence Reduction through Innovation in Vehicles and Energy Act, a bipartisan bill Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and I have introduced, would help develop technologies such as cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, biobutanol and plug-in hybrids so that our drivers have an array of fuel choices and are not dependent on one narrow technology.

Currently, the U.S. transportation system is dependent on a single commodity — oil. This leaves our economy vulnerable to wild price swings and to the whims of a small number of oil-producing regimes that do not have our best interests in mind. And it has been widely reported that some oil profits have been funneled to terrorist organizations. We simply cannot continue to fund both sides of the war on terror or continue to allow the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to have the power to disrupt our economy.

Biofuels, such as ethanol, also can help us combat global warming. Oil consumption by the transportation sector accounts for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. For every gallon of gasoline that corn-based ethanol displaces, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 20 percent. According to some studies, cellulosic ethanol could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by an astounding 70 percent to 90 percent.

Lastly, biofuels can help us improve air quality. Burning oil has a tremendous impact on public health. Terry Tamminen, the former head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, recently wrote that our oil-based transportation system causes tens of thousands of premature deaths, tens of thousands of hospitalizations, millions of asthma attacks and tens of thousands of new cases of cancer in the United States each year. Biofuel use can mitigate all of these health effects by reducing emissions of the compounds that cause these conditions. These compounds include carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and other toxic air pollutants.

Ethanol is not the complete answer to our oil addiction, but currently it is the best technology we have. Last year the U.S. consumed more than 5 billion gallons of ethanol, and the industry is poised to exceed the renewable fuels standard of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. But we have a long way to go. Ethanol and other biofuels will not reach their potential without overcoming several obstacles. These obstacles have been addressed in the DRIVE Act, which has been co-sponsored by more than 70 of my colleagues.

We need to find ways to ramp up the production of biofuels. Ethanol and other biofuels only account for roughly 2 percent to 3 percent of vehicle fuel consumption in this country. To produce more meaningful amounts, we must commercialize cellulosic ethanol. Ethanol made from corn uses only the starch from the corn to make fuel, but cellulosic ethanol breaks down cellulose to allow an entire plant to be converted into fuel. The fuel could be made from much cheaper and more efficiently grown plants such as switch grass or willows. The DRIVE Act also would help speed up the introduction of cellulosic technology into the marketplace by setting a benchmark of producing 75 million gallons of cellulosic biomass fuel by 2010 and 1 billion gallons by 2015. The bill also would increase the authorization for production incentives for cellulosic biomass to $200 million.

We also need vehicles that can run on biofuels. Of the 5 billion gallons of ethanol put in vehicles last year, 99 percent was dispensed in concentrations that were only 10 percent or less ethanol and 90 percent or more gasoline. In other words, ethanol currently is used as a fuel additive and not as a fuel. To change this dynamic, we need more vehicles that can run on 85 percent ethanol concentrations. Currently, only 3 percent of our vehicles are E85 or flex-fuel vehicles. The DRIVE Act would require that 50 percent of all vehicles made by 2012 be flex-fuel vehicles, and the bill would enact further consumer incentives for the purchase of flex-fuel vehicles.

Furthermore, many drivers who want to use ethanol cannot find gas stations that sell the fuel. Only one in 120 gas stations carry E85 fuel, and most of those stations are in the Midwest. The DRIVE Act would provide increased tax incentives for more gas stations to offer biofuels and would empower the Energy Department to issue regulations to ensure the fuel is available throughout the country.

But increasing the production of biofuels is not the whole answer. That is why when Kingston and I reintroduced the DRIVE Act for this Congress we decided to add a title specifically promoting hybrids and plug-in hybrid technology. Hybrids offer exciting gains in fuel economy without sacrificing performance. And plug-in hybrids offer the hope of truly diversifying our transportation fuels to any technology that can generate electricity — including wind power and solar power. Someday, a manufacturer will be able to introduce a flex-fuel plug-in hybrid. This combination of technologies has the potential to make 1 gallon of gasoline last more than 100 miles. To make this hope a reality, the DRIVE Act would dramatically increase research dollars for hybrid battery research and establish a plug-in hybrid prize for significant breakthroughs on various aspects of plug-in hybrid technology.

Imagine a future when we are not worried about access to oil supplies or whether to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive areas. A future when urban air quality matches that of rural areas. Imagine a time when we are no longer afraid of the effects of global warming. Biofuels alone will not get us there, but in combination with more energy-efficient vehicles, better electric batteries and perhaps even hydrogen fuel derived from water, this future can become reality.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.