Home' Technology Review : January February 2008 Contents 29 YEARS AGO
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW JANUARY/ FEBRUARY
When the New York Mercantile
Exchange closed the day before
Thanksgiving, a barrel of crude
oil cost over $97, roughly matching the
inflation-adjusted record high set in 1980.
As the baleful e ects of soaring oil prices
ripple through the economy, the quest for
an oil substitute becomes political, espe-
cially when presidential candidates stump-
ing in Iowa before the caucuses have to
pledge to preserve or expand subsidies to
the corn-based U.S. ethanol industry.
It is a time-honored campaign
strategy: if energy prices are scaring the
electorate, promise to develop alterna-
tive fuels. In the summer of 1979,
President Jimmy Carter promised that
with his energy plan, the United States
would "never use more foreign oil than
we did in 1977." A year later, he signed
the Biomass Energy and Alcohol Fuels
Act into law, allocating $600 million to
the production of fuels from agricultural
crops, agricultural wastes and residues,
wood and wood wastes and residues,
animal wastes, municipal wastes, and
aquatic plants. Much of the money was
devoted to research on cellulosic
ethanol, currently the most promising
biofuel in development (see "The Price of
Biofuels," p. 42).
In any case, Carter lost the election to
Ronald Reagan in a landslide, the price of
oil declined to levels tolerable to the elec-
torate, and just as he pledged, President
Reagan slashed the budget. By August
1981, funding for Carter's Biomass Act had
been reduced to $460 million. The money
soon dried up.
In the August/September 1979 issue of
Technology Review, Philip Shabeco , then
a writer for the New York Times, argued
in "The Current Politics of 'Synfuels' " that
politics should not diminish the impor-
tance of developing synthetic fuels, which
include clean-burning coal and crude oil
made from oil shale. Shabeco wrote:
President Carter's call for a "fast track"
development of synthetic fuels was, in large
measure, a response to a political problem---
his own waning prospects for re-election in
1980. Politics, therefore, is likely to determine
just how far the "synfuels" program goes.
The ninety-sixth Congress has been nota-
bly timid and unproductive, given to dart-
ing o in a new direction with every shift of
political current like a school of nervous fish.
When the gasoline lines started forming early
in the summer, Congress feverishly embraced
synthetic fuels as an answer to take home to
angry constituents. But when the lines disap-
peared in most of the country, the Congres-
sional will to deal boldly with the energy crisis
began to dissolve into the irresolute bickering
that has characterized the legislative branch
over the past couple of years.
If the synthetic fuels program is to move for-
ward at the pace outlined by the President, it
must be launched with the momentum of full
national consensus. The technology to carry
such a program to fruition exists, the policy
makers believe. And there is little argument
with the national security rationale for reliev-
ing dependence on foreign sources of energy. ...
Economic issues are likely to form a par-
ticularly di cult political barrier to Mr.
Carter's program. For one thing, the cost of
developing the synthetics program is going
to be high. According to an analysis by the
Rand Corporation, the crash program envi-
sioned by the President could easily cost twice
the $88 billion price tag he put on it. The cap-
ital absorbed by the program will drain funds
that would otherwise be invested in di erent
sectors of the economy. ...
It will be some time before the intrinsic
merits of competing energy strategies can be
fully weighed. But a political decision will be
made soon. The future of synthetic fuel devel-
opment will probably be determined by how
the issue is treated by the candidates for o ce
in 1980---and how the voters respond.
POLITICS CONTINUE TO
COMPLICATE ENERGY POLICY.
By MICHAEL PATRICK GIBSON
Technology Review (ISSN 1099-274X), Reg. U.S. Patent Office, is published bimonthly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Entire contents ©2008. The editors seek diverse views, and authors opinions do not represent the official
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29 YEARS AGO IN TR
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