Living Without Oil
As war looms, the search for new energy alternatives is all the more urgent
Grant Goodman wanted to do his part to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. So two years ago, the Phoenix concrete producer began using biodiesel--made from refined soybean oil--to fuel his fleet of 130 diesel-powered cement mixers and excavators. For his efforts, Goodman in 2001 won a local entrepreneur of the year award and plaudits from the Environmental Protection Agency. But protecting the Earth was not Goodman's only concern. "Let's start with national security--the billions and billions we waste dancing around the issue, protecting those pipelines, invading Iraq, doing whatever else we're doing in the Middle East. It all gets down to continuing the flow of oil to this country."
Goodman's stance hasn't been easy. Biodiesel fuel sold for 70 cents per gallon more than regular diesel fuel, giving competitors of his Rockland Materials a decided edge. "It cost me a few hundred grand," says Goodman. Those harsh economics forced him last year to resort to a petroleum mix including 40 percent or less of biodiesel. But don't count him out. He plans to build his own soybean oil refinery this year to help him return to 100 percent biodiesel. Goodman has urged other local businesses to make the switch, but as long as petroleum is cheaper, he says, "I'm this guy screaming in the wind."
Sure, in theory, everyone agrees the nation should break its 20 million-barrel-a-day oil habit, 58 percent of it imported. Last week, President Bush noted that "sometimes we import from countries that don't particularly like us. It jeopardizes our national security." Antiwar protesters, who argue that Iraq's massive oil reserves have made it a U.S. target, use sharper rhetoric. "No blood for oil!" they shouted at demonstrations at gasoline stations around the country last week. At the other end of the political spectrum, Martin Feldstein, who headed former President Reagan's panel of economic advisers, has argued that the United States should set a goal of complete oil independence by the year 2020. "Otherwise, we will continue to be hostage to the policies of the current and future rulers of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and their neighbors." And indeed, the jitters of potential war in the Middle East and political upheaval in Venezuela, the nation's fourth-largest oil supplier, have pushed up the price of gasoline for eight consecutive weeks. If global events turn awry, an oil price shock could, as has happened repeatedly in the past, tip the struggling economy back into recession.
Within reach. But has anyone found a reasonable alternative to the black gold that fuels the U.S. economy? Some answers seem tantalizingly close, especially for transportation, which consumes the vast majority of our oil. Hundreds of truck fleets and bus systems already run on two diesel-fuel alternatives, biodiesel and natural gas. Meanwhile, biotechnology has made it possible to extract fuels from farm products like corn husks, long discarded as waste. And, of course, there are the many recent advances in the harnessing of energy from the world's most abundant element, hydrogen--the science for which Bush pledged $1.2 billion support in his State of the Union message.