A Lesson in Biofuels from Tennessee

In 2007, to great fanfare and amid ever-greater expectations, a large-scale demonstration project was initiated to turn switchgrass into biofuel. For an investment of $70 million, the taxpayers of the state of Tennessee were promised a lucrative new industry that would benefit farmers and create thousands of other "green jobs." The project, which was expected to produce five million gallons of biofuel from switchgrass within two years, would soon be fiscally self-sustaining and afford a "significant return" on investment. As the largest switchgrass demonstration project in the country, it was to have been the foundation for a whole new industry.

Sounds great, and it is just what the Tennessee legislature approved in 2007. When it began, "the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative," as it is called, excited favorable comments in newspapers and media across the country. Finally, there would be a practical alternative to those nasty fossil fuels, and the great thing was that it would be produced from a hearty plant that could be grown on marginal land almost anywhere. Switchgrass was the answer to America's dependence on foreign oil. It would restore the trade balance, boost the economy, and save the earth, all at the same time.

Now, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Biofuels Initiative has reported that it is not yet producing 5 million gallons of switchgrass fuel. In fact, according to published reports, it would seem that it is not producing any fuel at all. The 250,000 gallons of ethanol that it is producing have been distilled from corn cobs -- a process akin to one already quite common, if not notorious, in the state of Tennessee.

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Energy, a biofuels facility of the sort envisioned would not be feasible unless it produced five million gallons per year. But according to a report by the executive director of the Fiscal Review Committee of the Tennessee state legislature, it appears certain that the Biofuels Initiative will not be "self-sufficient," as promised, within five years. Having initially promised that the plant would produce five million gallons with the goal of demonstrating the feasibility of switchgrass, the project director now seems to regard the initiative as a "research project." The feasibility issue will have to wait until some time in the future.

The project has cost the state $55 million, not counting additional federal funding and state subsidies to farmers growing switchgrass. Now members of the legislature are quoted as saying that the project is "not good stewardship of taxpayer dollars" and that continued funding "may need re-evaluation." The director of the project insists that the State Building Commission approved changes, but it appears that the legislature at large was not aware of them. Whether the legislature will continue funding the Biofuels Initiative, and at what level, will be determined after November 15.

Altogether, more than $90 million has been spent on the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative with no end in sight. On the national scale, tens of billions of dollars are being spent on similar alternative energy subsidies and research with little to show for it.

Much of this funding goes directly to foreign manufacturers. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, "China has positioned itself to reap many of the benefits" by exporting wind-turbines, solar panels, and other alternative energy products. The CEO of A-Power Energy Generation Systems, one of China's largest wind-turbine companies, has stated that the U.S. "is an ideal target" for exporting Chinese-made alternative energy goods.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration seems determined to kill off as many jobs as possible in well-established energy businesses here in the United States. The administration has placed a moratorium on mountaintop coal mining, affecting jobs throughout Appalachia. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has delayed shale exploration in the western United States and reneged on promises to permit offshore drilling in Alaska and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

At a time when Chinese and other foreign oil companies are buying up leases in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama is making it harder for our own energy companies to explore through the threat of cap-and-trade legislation. Domestic drilling for natural gas now stands at half of what it was just last year. The world's big new discoveries of oil and gas are taking place outside the U.S., offshore in Brazil and West Africa. Foreign countries will reap the economic reward of this exploration and production. Meanwhile, the value of U.S. currency continues to decline, and unemployment has risen to 10.2%.

How many energy-sector jobs has this administration killed off? Estimates are that new oil and gas discoveries in Brazil will create 400,000 new jobs (real jobs, not the "created or saved" variety). Even in the midst of a global recession, the Brazilian economy has shown resilience, perhaps because they are not busy eradicating jobs in their own energy sector. America could have a booming economy once again, with full employment and expanding wealth, but everything the President has done is designed to cripple our own industries and drive jobs overseas.

On one score, however, we can give the president credit. He has taken the initiative in driving CO2 emissions down, a step that some scientists believe will reduce global warming. The problem is that the earth is not warming: according the U. N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global temperature is now cooling, and it has been cooling for nearly a decade.

Obama has already budgeted tens of billions to combat climate change, a figure dwarfed by the amount proposed under cap-and-trade. The problem is, why cripple the economy to combat temperatures that are not rising? Obama seems to be in the same camp as the director of the Biofuels Initiative, who believes that switchgrass research will pay off some time in the future. Although it cannot be demonstrated now, at some time in the future the earth's temperatures are going to rise, and then we'll be glad we killed off America's fossil fuel industries. By that time, a lot of Americans will be without jobs, and whatever jobs they have won't be worth much.

But just think how happy the earth will be. Somewhere in the remote Arctic wilderness, a migratory caribou, grazing above five billion barrels of domestic oil reserves, will pause and thank us. After a few weeks it will pack up and head south for the long arctic winter, where it will reside comfortably while the unfortunate humans huddled in America will struggle to buy food, heat their homes, and make a living wage.

At that point, that $90 million spent on switchgrass research, and all of the other funds squandered on alternative energy research, would certainly come in handy, but it will be too late. China will be sitting pretty atop the world's largest fossil fuel reserves. Americans will be sitting around hoping the wind keeps blowing. 

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan.