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Week of 1.12.07

Five Questions with Environmental Writer Tom Philpott

Tom Philpott We asked writer Tom Philpott, who recently created a special series about biofuels for the environmental awareness site Grist.org, five big questions about America and alternative energy. Philpott writes about food politics for Grist and is a founder of Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture non-profit and small farm located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina.

NOW: What's the best case scenario for American alternative energy plans?

Philpott: One optimistic forecast I've seen comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which calculated that we can stop oil use by 2050 through an ambitious biofuel plan. To reach that conclusion, the NRDC is assuming cellulosic ethanol—which, unlike corn-based ethanol, makes fuel from all plant matter, not just simple sugars—will soon come into widespread use. Currently, cellulosic ethanol is too costly to make on a large scale.

But the NRDC's study doesn't mean that large-scale cellulosic ethanol production can ever allow us to burn through energy at the rate we're enjoying now. According to NRDC, weaning ourselves off oil will require serious conservation efforts. The group calculates that if present trends continue, we'll be using the energy equivalent of 290 million barrels of oil each year by 2050. In order for cellulosic ethanol to replace oil completely, we'll have to get that number down to 108 billion gallons. Message: No more SUVs or McMansions; it's time to conserve.

NOW: What's the worst-case scenario if wide-scale changes aren't made in the way America uses energy?

Philpott: Well, no one knows, really. Scientists can make educated guesses, but they're not seers. But we do know this: Theoretical models conclusively link global warming with high concentrations of atmospheric carbon. And we know that harnessing fossil fuel—in the form of coal and crude oil—has caused us to transfer a huge store of carbon from deep within the earth's surface into the atmosphere. On cue, global atmospheric temperatures are rising, and icecaps are melting. We know that reducing levels of atmospheric carbon is a long, slow process; and that overall human-generated carbon emissions are currently still growing, not decreasing.

All of this points to deep and frightening uncertainty about future patterns. Predictions range from severe weather events to massive coastal damage, both in the U.S. and around the world, and those predictions are already playing out. We can't change the past, but we can reduce carbon emissions now and hope for the best.

NOW: What are the biggest obstacles to America reducing its reliance on oil?

Philpott: There's no mystery here. Oil companies have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in equipment to drill, pump, refine, haul, and retail crude oil for the world's largest economy. Think they're going to jump onboard any plan that makes their big-money product obsolete? Economists call this effect "asset inertia."

In our political system, big money means big influence. It hardly needs repeating that President Bush is a scion of an oil family, and is himself a failed executive in that industry; or that Vice President Cheney just seven years ago was heading up one of the world's biggest oil services companies.

It's no surprise that, as Bush himself has put it, we've become "addicted to oil." Decades of access to the world's cheapest gas supply has made owning a gas-guzzling car seem almost a birthright; there's little outrage that fuel-economy standards haven't budged for years, or that the country's public transportation system remains a sad joke.

Frankly, our addiction to cheap and easy energy explains why so much of the current political discussion of energy is focused on replacement fuel sources like ethanol instead of on other solutions like conservation and public transportation. A mature reckoning of our situation with regard to climate change will require a much deeper conversation—and any progress is going to require a multi-pronged approach.

NOW: What's the best biofuel to rely on to ensure a realistic greener America in the future?

Philpott: Well, they're all problematic. What tends to be lost in discussions of "renewable" biofuels is the factors related to their production. For instance, soil is not a renewable resource. It takes centuries under natural conditions to replace an inch of topsoil lost to erosion. We're already leaning hard on the world's arable land to feed a growing global population. How hard do we really want to push it to fuel our cars?

One answer has been to open up new sources of land by clear-cutting tropical rainforests and planting soybeans and palm trees for biodiesel production. This seems a colossal error, given that those rainforests are what's known as natural "carbon sinks"—they slow climate change by trapping atmospheric carbon.

Any wise biofuel policy will proceed with great respect for soil conservation and for existing carbon sinks. Cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass is potentially one such solution, although claims made for it tend to be over-hyped. Biodiesel made from waste oils is potentially another.

NOW: What's the one important thing every American needs to know, but doesn't, about fuel production and conservation?

Philpott: There's almost no "clean" energy production (with the possible exception of solar energy). Wind farms raise hackles because they dot landscapes with unsightly windmills and kill birds. Biofuels erode soils and can detract from food production. So-called "clean" coal—based on technologies that promise one day to reduce the amount of carbon released by burning coal—can't exist without ripping into landscapes and releasing unconscionable levels of mercury into the air. Nuclear energy relies on plutonium mining and generates hazardous radioactive waste that no one has figured out what to do with. And so on.

Decades of cheap gasoline have indeed rendered us ignorant of energy's ugly sides. We rely utterly on easy locomotion and the ability to flip a switch to create light, but we don't respect the processes that have brought us those unprecedented advantages. And I think we'll have to learn to respect them if serious conservation is ever going to take off.

Related Resources:

» A GRIST special feature on biofuels