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Biofuel Blindness

The great danger of the biofuels craze is that it will divert us from stronger steps to limit dependence on foreign oil: higher fuel taxes to prod Americans to buy more gasoline-efficient vehicles and tougher federal fuel economy standards to force auto companies to produce them, writes Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson.

Published: 25-Jan-2007

President Bush joined the biofuels enthusiasm in his State of the Union address, and no one can doubt the powerful allure. Farmers, scientists and venture capitalists will liberate us from insecure foreign oil by converting corn, prairie grass and much more into gasoline substitutes. Biofuels will even curb greenhouse gases. Already, production of ethanol from corn has surged from 1.6 billion gallons in 2000 to 5 billion in 2006. Bush set an interim target of 35 billion gallons in 2017 on the way to the administration's ultimate goal of 60 billion in 2030. Sounds great, but be wary. It may be a mirage.

The great danger of the biofuels craze is that it will divert us from stronger steps to limit dependence on foreign oil: higher fuel taxes to prod Americans to buy more gasoline-efficient vehicles and tougher federal fuel economy standards to force auto companies to produce them. True, Bush supports tougher -- but unspecified -- fuel economy standards. But the implied increase above today's 27.5 miles per gallon for cars is modest, because the administration expects gasoline savings from biofuels to be triple those from higher fuel economy standards.
 
The politics are simple enough. Americans dislike high fuel prices; auto companies dislike tougher fuel economy standards. By contrast, everyone seems to win with biofuels: farmers, consumers, capitalists. American technology triumphs. Biofuels create rural jobs and drain money from foreign oil producers. What's not to like? Unfortunately, this enticing vision is dramatically overdrawn.

Let's do some basic math. In 2006, Americans used about 7.5 billion barrels of oil. By 2030, that could increase about 30 percent to 9.8 billion barrels, projects the Energy Information Administration. Much of that rise would reflect higher gasoline demand. In 2030, there will be more people (an estimated 365 million vs. 300 million in 2006) and more vehicles (316 million vs. 225 million). At most, biofuels would address part of the increase in oil demand; it wouldn't reduce our oil use or import dependence from current levels.

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