Curing 'addiction to oil' won't be easy, experts say

President Bush’s solutions to the country’s “addiction to oil” may not have reached “moon shot” or Manhattan Project proportions. But energy experts say cutting Middle Eastern oil imports by 75 percent won’t be easy, even though those imports only account for around 20 percent of the oil consumed here.

President Bush’s solutions to the country’s “addiction to oil” may not have reached “moon shot” or Manhattan Project proportions. But energy experts say cutting Middle Eastern oil imports by 75 percent won’t be easy, even though those imports only account for around 20 percent of the oil consumed here.

“It is certainly a significant cut, given the large demand for oil,” said Reid Detchon, the executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a group of business, labor and environmental groups that advocates policies to reduce the dependence on foreign oil.

The Department of Energy projects the United States will import 6 million barrels of oil a day from the Middle East by 2025.

Al Hubbard, National Economic Council director, told reporters in a conference call yesterday that the department expects to reduce the projected growth in demand by 5.26 million barrels a day with the development of alternative fuels, hybrid cars and trucks, and new battery technologies that the administration backs.

About 90 percent of that reduction would come by reducing imports from the Middle East.

Bush paid particular attention in his State of the Union to the development of so-called cellulosic ethanol, derived from switch grass or wood chips. The ethanol used today is derived from corn.

While no plants in the United States produce cellulosic ethanol, the president said his administration would work to make the fuel competitive with other fuels in the next six years.

A Canadian company, Iogen, is considering building the first plant of its type here.

Given the expected growth in demand for oil, however, a variety of efforts will be needed to cut oil use in this country, said Paul Bledsoe, a spokesman for the National Commission on Energy Policy, a group of industry executives, environmentalists and academics that released a major energy study last year.

Reducing oil consumption will be particularly difficult without increasing the fuel economy for automobiles, Bledsoe said. Americans are expected to use around 9 million barrels a day more than they currently consume, which equates to a 40 percent increase by 2025.

Given that growth curve, raising the fuel economy of the fleet of cars and trucks from 24 miles per gallon, the current average, to 44 miles per gallon would only reduce oil consumption by 3 million barrels a day by 2025, Bledsoe said.

The commission supports increasing federal fuel standards to cut oil use, coupled with the development of alternative fuels. Bledsoe said the president’s proposal would only slow the rate of growth in projected oil demand, not reduce the overall amount consumed in the United States.

Environmentalists, who are among the administration’s toughest critics, welcomed the president’s acknowledgment of a problem in the nation’s need for oil.

“To his credit, he has taken a step toward finding an alternative technology, and that says a lot considering his oil-patch background,” said Marchant Wentworth, an energy analyst and lobbyist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group.

But Wentworth called the president’s proposed 22 percent increase in funding for advanced energy programs “sad.” And he questioned how quickly the Energy Department would be able to turn the research it does into market viable technologies.

“There has to be a very major increase in the R&D budget, and the president does not offer that,” Wentworth said.

Dretchon said the administration could have been more ambitious in its targets, but he called the one iterated in the State of the Union address a “good goal.”