Whatever happens at the Commonwealth Club stays at the Commonwealth Club--on its website, that is, as a podcast you can hear in case you miss all those big-brained events. Here's what happened at its panel on biofuels last week, in case you don't have time to listen. In a nutshell:
Hybrid sales continue to climb, while Hummer drivers look dumber than ever. Maybe global oil supplies already peaked within the past few years, if not decades ago. Green indie fuels for trains, trucks, and automobiles are hot. Why buy oil from countries run by dictators when our cars can chug along on corn, garbage, rice straw, banana peels, or french fry oil made in the U.S.A.?
Only in the next decade can we keep climate change trends from zooming so high off the charts that Al Gore will need to punch holes in conference room ceilings to fit his PowerPoint presentations. So shall we pop the cork (or prepare a casket) for the end of the oil age? Just a sec.
"The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones," said Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director of the National Resources Defense Council. In other words, just because we're running out of fast, cheap oil doesn't mean we're going to stop trying to squeeze it out of stones. Literally. Rather than push for biofuels, much of the oil industry in North America is exploring tar sands, oil shale, and coal. These methods pollute air and water and expel more greenhouse gases than the conventional drilling that made the characters on "Dynasty" drip diamonds from their shoulderpads.
In Alberta, Canada for instance, stripmining sand covered with tar requires blasting with superhot water, using lots of natural gas (and nuclear reactors, if the companies really had their way). The process creates ponds of toxic waste, where canons are fired to keep birds from landing in the poison water, and it de-lovelies boreal forests. Blame a behemoth called Syncrude (with a convenient, Dickensian name), whose website links off the bat to a tidy sustainability report (left).
"We have the potential to drive our crossroads into a highly destructive path with these so-called unconventional sources," said Hwang. "After these investments are made, it's going to be very, very hard to turn back the clock and keep these out of the marketplace."
Ryan Lamberg of Community Fuels said he hoped that biodiesel will replace petroleum-based diesel for trucks, school buses, as well as construction and farming equipment. "While most Americans drive gasoline cars, all Americans feel the effect of diesel prices and diesel pollution." But the demand for biodiesel is bigger than the supply. Lots of Californians want it, but they've got to ship the materials from the Midwest.
Rick Zalesky of Chevron said it would be wonderful if today's technology could convert biomass to a molecule chemically identical to gasoline but carbon neutral. Then we could just keep our fuel distribution centers and gas stations and combustion engines--presto, no new infrastructure or hyper hybrid-electric-hydrogen cars of the future necessary.
Ethanol is a drag, and would require using all our farmland if every gasoline car used it, noted Alex Farrell , UC Berkeley professor, who called waste fuels the next big thing in biofuels. "There's no silver bullet. We are likely to see in the future a number of different technologies."