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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 18:10 GMT
Can the US break its oil addiction?
Barrels of oil
President Bush is hoping to help the US kick its oil import habit
In his State of the Union address, President George W Bush said the US was "addicted to oil" which threatens to undermine future economic growth.

He used his speech to launch the Advanced Energy Initiative - a research programme focusing on the development of clean energy technologies.

President Bush said he hoped to "move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past".

The president focused on two areas: electricity generation and alternative transport fuels.

'Clean coal'

The US is literally sitting on a massive energy source. One quarter of the world's coal reserves are located within the nation's borders.

The US generated 3,940 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2004, with more than half coming from coal-fired power stations.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that this figure will exceed 5,840TWh by 2030, with coal still being the dominant player.

But coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels. To tackle the environmental impact of burning coal, the president has earmarked a further $281m (158m) for research into clean coal technology.

The current administration's flagship clean coal project, FutureGen, will receive $54m (30m) of this funding.

Launched by President Bush in 2003, the $1bn (563m) research scheme's goal was to deliver commercially viable near-zero emission coal-fired power stations.

Diagram of a coal gasification plant

It is developing a power station that gasifies the coal into hydrogen, which can then either be used to generate electricity or piped elsewhere to be used in transportation or the chemicals industry.

The CO2 generated by this process will be captured and stored in vast geological reservoirs underground.

Critics of the technology say it is a long way from delivering the promised near-zero emission power plants.

"This is the classical American presidential dodge," Phil Clapp, president of the US-based National Environmental Trust, told the BBC News website.

"You can always put government money into developing technology, but it never gets used by the private sector unless you take action like setting limits on emissions."

Although Mr Bush did not mention climate change in his speech, the impact of a warming world must have had some influence, says John Ashton, chief executive of environmental think-tank E3G.

"There must be some climate change thinking behind his references to zero-emissions coal because the only reason for capturing emissions is for climate reasons.

"I would be looking for a sign that the US administration would be willing to invest in the range of technologies on a scale and with an urgency that will make a real impact on the climate problem."

China is currently building coal-fired power stations at an unprecedented rate to meet its ever-growing thirst for power. It is using conventional technology that allows CO2 emissions to escape into the atmosphere.

These power stations are not expected to be replaced for at least 30 years.

Fuelling the future

President Bush acknowledged that new ways of powering the estimated 250 million cars on US roads had to be developed if the need for Middle East oil was going to be "a thing of the past".

He outlined a range of measures to "move beyond petroleum", including:

  • Biorefinery Initiative: Funding worth $150m (84.5m) for research into making ethanol from agricultural waste cost-competitive by 2012.

  • Hydrogen Fuel Initiative: President Bush originally launched this programme in 2003, but has earmarked a further $289m (163m) towards the development of commercially viable hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

US freeway (EyeWire)
The White House predicts it will take 15 years to switch to other fuels

Although the White House sees ethanol meeting up to 30% of the nation's fuel use, it admits that it will take around 15 years to switch the nation's cars to new technologies.

Bob Dinneen, president of the US Renewable Fuels Association, welcomed the president's efforts on promoting alternative fuels.

Mr Dinneen said it showed that the president was serious about moving "the country toward an energy future that is less reliant on unreliable and increasingly costly foreign sources of oil".

The National Hydrogen Association, a representative body for US-based hydrogen organisations, welcomed the president's continued commitment to the long-term development of the fuel.

"We are very pleased to see continuing support for the hydrogen initiative and the fuel's development," director Patrick Serfass told the BBC News website.

"All the energies mentioned in his speech showed the president's big picture thinking on a whole range of different technologies, with hydrogen remaining an important part."

Mr Serfass said the technology could also be embraced by other nations facing a similar problem over securing supplies of imported fuels.

"Hydrogen development can help solve global energy issues. It can help countries like the UK and Japan to use domestic resources to meet future energy needs."

President Bush's decision to focus on technology comes as little surprise. Shortly after coming to power in 2001, he said the US would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol because it would harm economic growth.

He argued the binding targets to cut global greenhouse gases would not deliver. Instead, he favoured cutting emissions through technological advances.

Road to recovery

Last July, Mr Bush announced the formation of the US-led Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development.

In December, the six-nation group, including China and India, held its first high-level meeting in Sydney.

The partnership used the gathering to reaffirm its belief that technological advances could deliver both economic growth and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

"It is just another dodge to try to get away from Kyoto," says Phil Clapp. "Governments have to take a decision to create markets for new technologies.

"If the Asia-Pacific partnership came up with a new technology to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, what would China's incentive be to adopt that new technology? None whatsoever."

The fact that President Bush has used his State of the Union address to promote alternatives energy sources is promising, says Steve Sawyer from Greenpeace.

"The first step in curing an addiction is recognising that you have a problem. He's stood up and taken the first step in the 'oil-aholics' programme."




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