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Biotechnology Advances Make It Feasible

James Greenwood

Des Moines Register

February 21, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

In his State of the Union address, President Bush outlined his Advanced Energy Initiative to replace 75 percent of oil imports from the Middle East with domestic fuel production by 2025, including cellulosic ethanol.

This plan is feasible because advances in biotechnology can play a vital role in meeting this energy challenge.

Industrial biotech companies are using advances in genomics from health care and applying them to our energy problems. With these new advances the United States could soon produce billions of gallons of renewable energy.

Until now, scientists have been unable to economically convert the plant matter in crop wastes into cellulosic ethanol for transportation fuel. But industrial biotech companies are perfecting a new enabling technology to make cellulosic ethanol. They’re developing and isolating enzymes that can convert corn stalks, wheat straw, and switchgrass to sugars that can be fermented into ethanol. By treating crop wastes with these natural enzymes, we can now produce large quantities of ethanol in modern biorefineries. This technological breakthrough is causing a dramatic paradigm shift in energy production.

Cellulosic-ethanol production will provide numerous benefits for Americans. We need huge volumes of ethanol to enhance our energy picture, and ethanol from corn starch alone cannot provide the supply we need. Once we add crop wastes as the new “renewable crude oil,” we can begin to significantly ramp up ethanol production.

The Natural Resources Defense Council notes that by using switchgrass and biotech enzymes we could be making enough cellulosic ethanol to displace 7.9 million barrels of oil per day by 2050, half the current daily oil demand for the transportation sector. NRDC also points out that cellulosic ethanol can help rural areas by creating new jobs and increasing farm income by a whopping $5 billion a year by 2025.

The technology is ready today, and sustainable agricultural feedstocks are abundantly available in most states. The president’s biofuels initiative can help bring cellulosic ethanol to fueling stations throughout the country within a few short years, if we can build the biorefineries needed to produce large volumes of this domestically grown fuel.

Last year’s Energy Policy Act established several programs to fund research and aggressively develop advanced biofuels technologies. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman has proposed increasing funding for research in cellulosic ethanol by more than 50 percent, and that will help. But more important, Congress and the administration must fund and carry out provisions of the energy bill signed into law last year that were designed to build biorefineries, expand markets and increase acceptance and use of all types of biofuels.

Important parts of the energy bill reward companies that construct biorefineries to convert crop residues to ethanol; give tax breaks to fuel retailers who install pumps to sell ethanol; and award cellulosic-ethanol producers an incentive to reach the goal of refining 1 billion gallons a year. Other provisions require increased use of ethanol and cellulosic ethanol in all transportation fuel by 2012 and require use of renewable fuels in all government-fleet vehicles. If these provisions are fully funded by the appropriators in Congress, it will spur significant private investment in cellulosic-ethanol production.

Congress can build on the president’s proposal and can hurry a more secure energy future by fully funding the cellulosic-ethanol provisions already on the books. Doing so will help farmers, the environment and consumers while also enhancing our national security. With benefits like that, we can’t fail to act decisively to make cellulosic ethanol and national energy security a reality.

JAMES C. GREENWOOD is president and chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.