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FUELISH CHOICES

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IN 2007 BRIAN SCHWEITZER,

THE GOVERNOR OF

MONTANA,

CAME TO

New York on business. One of his meetings on that trip was with Michael, ostensibly to discuss using coal to produce liquid fuela technical discussion about a capital-intensive projectbut almost before they had a chance to greet each other, the governor had placed a handful of small seeds down on Michaels desk. They looked like mustard seeds to me, Michael told me. But Governor Schweitzer set him straight. These were camelina seedsa plant that is, in fact, related to mustard, but it is not a food source. Camelina was cultivated widely in Europe during the Bronze and Iron ages, prized for the oil it released when it was pressed, and the governor was promoting this ancient crop now to Montanas farmers. This plant, the governor explained, could thrive in dry conditions, so it didnt need a lot of irrigation, which was good if water got as scarce as some people said it was going to get, and camelina had some big advantages as a rotation crop too crop rotation being the standard agricultural practice of planting dissimilar crops in the same acreage from year to year in order to avoid the soil depletion and build-up of pests and pathogens that often happens when one species is continually planted in the same space. The governors goal was to get 50,000 acres of high-yield strains planted in his state. Michael naturally wanted to know why. The governor smiled. Biodiesel.

Now we come to the third and final piece of the energy puzzle that must be put into place to secure our energy future: How are we going to fuel our cars in the coming renewable age? The answer to this question is, as youll see, rather complex, but well start the discussion with an obvious declaration: We dont need gasoline to drive our cars.

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Plain as that. We have biofuels. We have ethanol, which is made by fermenting the sugars contained in plant matter, as an alternative to gasoline. And we have biodiesel, which is made from oils that can be extracted from plants, as an alternative to diesel fuel oil. With oil prices hitting $100 a barrel and world oil supplies moving fast toward empty, it may well strike us breathless with relief that we have alternative ways to fuel the cars, trucks, and minivans that shuttle us around the world. But the plain truth is that we dont need oil to stay on the move and we never did. In 1898 Rudolph Diesel demonstrated his invention, the compression engine, at the Worlds Exhibition in Parisand peanut oil was the fuel that he used. In 1908 Henry Ford introduced the Model Tand it ran on ethanol. These automotive pioneers used plant-derived fuels not because gasoline wasnt available in their time, but because they presciently believed in building machines that ran on renewable fuels rather than the resource-consuming steam engines of the day that, as the industrial age progressed, grew hungrier and hungrier for coal, filling city skies with smoke and noxious fumes. Ford, in fact, was so convinced that energy produced by renewable, plant-based fuels was the future that he built an ethanol-processing plant in the American Midwest and partnered with Standard Oil to sell biofuel in the oil companys emerging network of fueling stations. Through the 1920s, ethanol accounted for a full quarter of Standard Oils fuel sales. So, what happened? If we owe car engineering excellence to the Germans (and we do to inventors like Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz), and if we owe a nod to the French for taking on the risk of manufacturing a branded line of that new invention, the car, and making it available to the public (and we doPeugeot was the first successful commercial automobile manufacturer, and the company is still going strong today), we owe the creation of a car culture to the United States. Henry Fords assembly-line

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approach to carmaking, along with the Model Ts affordable price tag, made the luxury of motoring democratic. By 1927, 15 million Model Ts were on the roads, and most of them had been built from the chassis up, ready to roll out of Fords automated factory, in just ninety-three minutes. But, at the same time that the world was discovering the joys of the open road, something elsesomething else very uniquely American was going on: Prohibition. Prior to the end of World War I, the ethanol industry in America had been a booming business, with nearly 50 million gallons produced every year. Ethanol was used not only as an automotive fuel but as a material in the making of a wide variety of products that were necessary to the war effort. Then, in 1919, the Prohibition era began. Ethanol is, as weve said, a product that is made from the fermented sugars of plants, much in the same way that wine, beer, and whiskey are produced, resulting in alcohol. During Prohibition, it was illegal to manufacture alcohol; ethanol, because of its alcohol content, was considered liquor. The only way that it could be sold within the law was if it was mixed with some poisonous substance that would make it unfit to drink. The poisonous substance that it was mixed with was petroleum. The eras oil barons quickly took advantage of the disfavor in which alcohol was held to discredit ethanol and consolidate the place of gasoline in the new car culture. All it took was a few minor adjustments to the cars engine design, and abetted by the fact that oil at the time was cheap and plentifulpresto! By 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, ethanol was thought of as a gasoline extender, or maybe an octane enhancer that boosted a cars performance, but it was no longer thought of as a fuel. Standing, as we are, at the dawn of new energy age, faced with rapidly depleting oil supplies, we have no choice but to think, once again, of ethanol as a fuel. And to make the Diesel/Ford dream of a biofueled future ours at last.