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In President Bush’s State of the Union address this week, he announced several key energy proposals, most notably increasing the use of biofuels such as ethanol. But some critics are skeptical of the president’s proposal to rely largely on ethanol to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent in a decade. Indeed, this could do more harm than good, says David Victor, director of Stanford University’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development. This week Victor is participating in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where climate change leads the agenda. Technology Review caught up with him by phone to get his views on the president’s speech–and on what the United States should be doing.

Technology Review: At least superficially, President Bush’s remarks on energy echo some of your own ideas. What parts of his speech did you applaud?

David Victor: The overall strategy, which is to rely on markets and encourage diversity in energy and to encourage efficiency, all of which he said in one way or another, is absolutely right. What was new last night was the goal of doubling the size of the strategic petroleum reserve. That’s an extremely important thing to do.

His emphasis on technology is absolutely crucial. What he did say about climate change did emphasize technology. All of that is sound.

I thought the rest of the stuff was drifting off into the zone of unreality. The target that he sets of cutting down gasoline consumption by 20 percent in a decade is, I think, almost certainly unachievable.

TR: One of the technologies the president emphasized is converting wood chips and grasses, known as cellulosic feedstocks, into ethanol. Could that make his goals achievable?

DV: You have to be careful because a very large part of our biofuels policy is not about energy at all. It’s really about the heartland and farm politics because the current corn-based biofuels don’t really save us that much energy. Cellulosic biomass [which is potentially much more efficient] is still really some distance off in the future. If we try to meet these aggressive targets very quickly, what we’re going to end up with is a much, much larger version of the current, already inefficient, corn-based ethanol program.

TR: Documents released by the White House said that the vast majority of the 20 percent reduction in gasoline use in the next decade should come from using more biofuels such as ethanol. Is this a good strategy?

DV: In my view, this is a dangerous goal because the other technologies [such as cellulosic ethanol] are not available, [and] it really demands that we dramatically scale up our corn-based ethanol program. And I think that has serious ecological problems because of the large amount of land that they’re going to have to put under cultivation. [There are] big economic problems because [making ethanol from corn] certainly isn’t competitive with other ways of making biofuels, such as from sugar.

The other part of the problem is that it now appears that the price of sugar and the price of corn is tied to the oil market. Planters are looking at oil prices and making decision about how much to plant and about how much of their crop they’re going to send into ethanol production and how much into food. So if oil prices stay high, then you’re going to see the prices of these important food products rising at the same time. And there’s already warnings from ranchers, who use corn for feed. And food processors are raising the price of their products and warning their shareholders because the prices of corn syrup and other corn-based feedstocks [are] rising.

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Credit: David Victor, Stanford University

Tagged: Energy, energy, biofuel, ethanol, biomass, Q&A

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