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Piecemeal Efforts Fall Short

August 25, 2010

Despite ongoing concerns about the United States’ vast appetite for petroleum in general and foreign oil in particular, Washington has taken only piecemeal measures to address the challenge. Collectively, these efforts will have only a small impact on the amount of oil the country consumes.

In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation tightened fuel economy regulations: cars will be required to achieve an average of 35.5 miles per gallon starting in 2016, up from 27.5 today. The EPA expects this change to save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of the vehicles sold under these regulations. But that’s only a bit more oil than the U.S. consumes in three months.

In 2007, Congress passed a bill directing fuel companies to distribute 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year by 2022. That’s a small but significant chunk of the fuel supply: roughly 17 percent of annual gasoline consumption. According to the federal mandates, 21 billion gallons must be advanced biofuels rather than the biofuels that are commercially available now, such as corn-derived ethanol. The technology exists to make these new fuels, which include ethanol made from cellulosic sources such as grasses, and other fuels derived from sources such as algae. But attempts to make them in volume are off to a slow start.

The federal mandates initially required that energy distributors use 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol this year, but the EPA scaled this back to 6.5 million gallons because no commercial cellulosic-­ethanol plants have been built yet. The EPA plans to waive next year’s even larger requirements, too. For the foreseeable future, advanced biofuels aren’t going to make much of a dent in petroleum consumption.

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