Previous efforts to pass much stricter fuel-economy standards have run into resistance not only from Bush and Republicans wary of government regulation but also Democrats from auto-producing states who have warned that congressional mandated rules could lead to lighter, less-safe vehicles, cost the U.S. auto industry jobs and harm the economy.
Bush's call for ramping up production of ethanol and other alternative fuels generated more enthusiasm, especially on Capitol Hill among farm-state Democrats and Republicans.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 14 words Type of Material: Correction
A graphic in Wednesday's Section A included an incorrect scale. Here's the correct version: [Correct version linked to this story.]
Bush's plan does not single out ethanol, even though it is in the best position to deliver the desired results. The goal also can be met with the use of biodiesel, butanol, methanol, hydrogen and other forms of alternative fuels.
Corn-based ethanol is not without its drawbacks and would be a short-term solution at best. Corn-based ethanol consumes a valuable U.S. food crop and has driven the price up. What's more, the process of growing corn and transforming it into ethanol consumes large amounts of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. And with current technology, U.S. farms could provide only enough corn to yield 15 billion gallons of fuel ethanol a year -- well below the president's new goal of 35 billion, according to some estimates.
Though today's ethanol production involves trade-offs, its advocates believe new technology will soon erase many of the downsides. The most important breakthrough would be a switch to making ethanol from agricultural waste, switch grass, wood chips and other kinds of biomass that get broken down by enzymes or bacteria to yield what's known as cellulosic ethanol.
To get to Bush's new target, "it will take cellulosic-based ethanol, and it will take improvements in the efficiency of grain-ethanol production, and those things are improving on a daily basis," said Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Assn., a Washington-based trade group. "It's the technology advancements today and down the road that will allow us to achieve the 35 billion gallons of fuel and beyond."
Hartwig and others believe the president's new fuels plan, even if it comes without additional government research funding, would encourage investors to put money into ethanol and other biofuel projects. Cellulosic ethanol, for example, is already a proven technology, but more funding is needed to find ways to cut the cost of making it, according to Hartwig and others.
Dyadic International Inc. is one of a handful of companies trying to make fiber-based ethanol commercially feasible. Bush's pronouncement Tuesday night, Chief Executive Mark Emalfarb said, would help companies like his to speed advancements in ethanol production.
"For 14 years, we were working on this behind-the-scenes, and nobody cared," Emalfarb said. "But from the minute the president got on the air [last year] and said 'America is addicted to oil' and mentioned cellulosic ethanol, the phone's been ringing off the hook.... Now he's tripled the size of the market."
Simon reported from Washington and Douglass and O'Dell from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Janet Wilson in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.
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The U.S. energy picture
President Bush is urging gasoline consumption to be slashed and is proposing that the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels be increased to 35 billion gallons of the country's fuel supply by 2017, from about 5 billion now.
Where we get our oil
Domestic -- 63%
Imported -- 37%
Domestic -- 40%
Imported -- 60%
* Estimated as of October