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Biofuels production plays to U.S. strengths

Adding biofuels as a significant part of the U.S. energy equation “plays to America’s strengths,” says David Fleischaker, Oklahoma Secretary of Energy.

Fleischaker, keynote luncheon speaker at the recent International Conference on Sorghum for Biofuel in Houston, said renewable energy should be part of the country’s solution to energy security. He offered reasons biofuels will:

  • Reduce dependence on foreign oil.
  • Reduce funding for terrorist organizations
  • Revitalize the world economy, and
  • Enhance our environmental profile.

He said the United States is not among the leaders in oil reserves but is a leader in biomass production. “We have an enormous potential resource,” Fleischaker said. “Our challenge it to put it to work in a sustainable fashion.”

Oklahoma is ahead of the curve in exploring options. He said the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center has a $40 million incentive over four years to jump start a biofuels industry. Three agencies, the Noble Foundation, Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma, are cooperating in broad research projects ranging from feedstock development, production, harvest and transportation to refining. The initiative depends on agricultural participation, he said.

“Without farmers and ranchers involved, it will not happen,” he said. Researchers planted a 1,000-acre plot of switchgrass in the Oklahoma Panhandle this year to look at production and handling technology.

“We also have sorghum demonstration fields across the state.”

Fleischaker said similar initiatives across the country should continue despite recent “pushbacks” from environmental groups and the livestock industry. “Most of those pushbacks were aimed at corn as a feedstock,” he said. “And we must ask if we can use one-third to one-half our annual crop in a sustainable fashion. Seed companies say we will see dramatic increases in yield potential within 10 years.”

He said refinery costs have come down some 30 percent, largely because of lower cost for the enzymes necessary to convert grain into ethanol.

“So we’re somewhat optimistic, but we still do not know what we can achieve on a sustainable basis.”

He said the EPA’s recent ruling against Texas Governor Rick Perry’s request to reduce the Renewable Fuels Standard Mandate by 50 percent was predicated on the finding that his concerns “were trumped by the need for a transition from petroleum to biofuels.”

Fleischaker said Oklahoma is a major oil producing state but is still committed to pushing biofuels.

“Most of the oil in the United States was discovered from 1930 through 1940,” he said. “We’ve been living on reserves found 60 years. Oklahoma’s current production is the same as it was in 1916.”

He said oil production in the United States peaked in the early 1970s. “It’s been declining ever since except for the blip that occurred when Prudhoe Bay came on line.”

In that time, consumption has increased and so has dependence on foreign supplies. “In the 1970s we imported 30 percent of our oil and produced 70 percent. Today, we import 70 percent and produce 30 percent. And the cost is a moving target.”

He said with oil at just $110 a barrel, we spend $500 billion a year to import it. “That’s $1.3 billion a day.”

He said 67 percent of that consumption is for transportation and 97 percent of transportation cost is for hydrocarbon fuels.

“And consumption trend is upward,” he said. “Also, China and India, with 33 percent of the world population, have a 10 percent economic growth rate.”

He said oil demand in China has tripled since 1980 and became an oil importing nation. “China is a new player at the table with 30,000 new cars on the streets every month in Beijing. China is outbidding the United States for resources.”

Fleischaker said environmental concerns also favor renewable fuels. Both the United States and China are increasing production of greenhouse gases. “Most of that in the United States comes from coal-fired plants; transportation is second.”

He said folks may disagree on the perils of global warming but insisted that it’s a risk management option.

“We can’t afford to be wrong. We have to think carefully about the future as we change our habits and change our energy solutions.”

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TAGS: Corn
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