Access to the world's oil supplies is a principal factor behind US government policy, as the events of the past two years have unmistakably shown. And no wonder: possessing only 2% of the world's reserves of oil, the US consumes 25% of global oil production at a cost of $150bn per year. Of this, 70% is in the form of gasoline (petroleum) or diesel fuel for transport use.
Given the finite supply of oil, this cannot go on. Certainly, by 2050, competition for oil supplies will be frantic. Eventually, the US will have to make a transition away from oil: it is just a question of when, what to use instead, and how much disruption the move will cause.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a US environmental watchdog, one painless alternative could be grass. By 2015, the US could be generating 3.8bn litre/year (1bn US gallons/year) of biomass fuel derived from the leaves, stems and stalks of plants. This could start the country on the road to a dramatic reduction of its oil addiction, says the NRDC in a new report Growing energy.
Most previous studies have dismissed biomass-based fuels as unable to do more than nibble at the edges of the energy problem--perhaps covering 10% of transport requirements--given the amount of land that would have to be used to grow them. But the NRDC report authors reckon the cost-effectiveness of biofuels as far higher, because they focus on what bioenergy technologies will deliver after they have been developed to commercial maturity and are operating on a large scale, rather than as they are today.
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Essential to the success of biofuels is that they could turn out cheaper than fossil-derived fuels. By 2015, says NRDC, an advanced biofuel refinery could produce ethanol output costing only $0,10/litre ($0,39/ US gallon)--the energy equivalent of $0,15/litre of gasoline or $0,22/litre for diesel.
Nevertheless, the proposal is daunting in scale, By 2050, the US...