Point: Preserving our heritage industries 

Last year, the United States borrowed approximately $320 billion to import oil " nearly $1 billion per day. Significant portions of these funds are used by hostile nations to finance and perpetuate hatred of the West and its philosophies. Therefore, it is critical that American leaders, policy makers and private industry search for ways to make our country less dependent on imported oil.

Our economy is petroleum-based " the United States consumes approximately 150 billion gallons of gasoline annually. It is unrealistic to believe that we will eliminate our national demand for petroleum. However, it is possible to significantly decrease our need for oil imported from the Middle East. With its vast expertise as a pioneer in agriculture and energy production, Oklahoma is poised to address this challenge.

The answer requires many solutions, but chief among them is the production of biofuels " a source of energy produced from converting crops, crop residue and woody materials into fuel. Within the not-too-distant future, the United States will be capable of producing 25 percent of its annual gasoline consumption from agricultural products that are clean-burning, homegrown and renewable. Using these products to produce fuel will put money into the pockets of Oklahoma farmers and ranchers.

Many criticize biofuel advocates for failing to consider the effects of using a food crop, such as corn, as a fuel crop. Biofuel advocates are not suggesting that we can rely solely on corn-based ethanol to reach our goal of eliminating Middle Eastern imports.

While corn-based ethanol has helped break down barriers to using biofuels, the real potential is in producing cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol is biofuel made from plant matter such as perennial prairie grasses, crop and forest residues. Importantly, feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol are not used for food, so there is no conversion of food crops to fuel crops.

Ethanol critics also warn that poorer countries will be affected adversely by utilizing crops as a fuel source. In reality, these countries may well benefit from the development of dedicated energy crops. A Worldwatch Institute report points out:

Of the world's 47 poorest nations, 38 are net oil importers, 25 of which import all their oil. By reducing our own oil consumption, we relieve price pressure on oil these countries consume. Many of the world's hungry are farmers who could grow energy crops on their marginal lands. Those in remote areas would benefit by producing their own fuels. Per unit of energy produced, biofuel industries require about 100 times more workers than the fossil fuel industry, adding, for example, 500,000 direct jobs in Brazil. Selling U.S. corn in the international market, often at very low prices, often sabotages the efforts of poor nations to develop their agricultural economies, driving the rural populations to the urban sprawl.

Oklahoma is positioned to be a leader in developing cellulosic ethanol and helping reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil. We have abundant, native perennial prairie grasses; leading research in the development of dedicated energy crops; a refining industry that provides expertise; and a product pipeline complex that leads to major transportation fuel markets.

Biofuels are certainly not the only solution to our energy problems. However, biofuels do provide a unique opportunity to Oklahoma to preserve and expand our heritage industries: energy and agriculture.


Wegener is deputy secretary of energy for the state of Oklahoma.

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Robert Wegener

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