It’s said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. Shortly after the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, biofuel supporters were chanting “Till, Baby, Till!” in a parody of offshore drilling supporters’ cries of “Drill, Baby, Drill!” at Sarah Palin rallies last year. In the same spirit, political commentators have sought the right rhyme for the giant oil spill itself among prior comparable catastrophes. The disaster was initially called “Obama’s Katrina” by the President’s political enemies, comparing his inaction to President Bush’s widely criticized slow response to Hurricane Katrina. When the scale of the disaster became known, BP’s chairman made a comparison to “Three-Mile Island,” implying that this disaster could put a stop to petroleum as the 1970s disaster effectively froze the U.S. nuclear industry. And now, as the spill has become the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, even the president’s supporters are comparing it to 9/11 – with “The World is Flat” author Tom Friedman and others making the case that Obama is squandering a historic opportunity to unite the country and possibly the world behind renewable energy.
Given that biofuels are the most direct substitute for the petroleum that’s central to the current crisis, they are likely to receive the most attention from politicians and citizens alike. Moreover, they’re a natural fit for the climate and the economy of the southern U.S. states directly affected by the spill: if Mendel’s 1,200 gal/acre yield claims hold true, Alabama farmers could replace their 360,000 acres of cotton (worth about $250 million at 850 lbs/acre yields and a price of $0.78/lb) with miscanthus, and convert it using technology being developed in neighboring states, like BlueFire’s* cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Mississippi or DuPont Danisco’s 250,000 gal/yr cellulosic ethanol plant in Tennessee to produce 432 million gallons of ethanol (worth nearly $1 billion at today’s spot price of $1.98). Gulf-state algae companies like PetroAlgae* and PetroSun could get a political and economic boost with their potential to provide biocrude and biodiesel. The risk, however, is that many sketchy biofuel startups will reap millions of taxpayer and investor dollars as they use the oil spill catastrophe to opportunistically promote technologies that have no chance of ever working.
What’s the best path forward for the U.S. government? Despite his acknowledged missteps, Bush’s response to 9/11 provides useful analogies and ideas. At the bottom line, there’s the scope: the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is $2.4 trillion according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which would amount to a pretty large check for cleaner energy. Where neither Bush nor his then-rival Kerry opted to tax gasoline to fund the war and invest in alternative fuels when gas prices cost half what they do today, Obama should seize the moment and push to tax carbon. A carbon tax would encompass not just oil but also the coal industry, which the recent mining catastrophe shows is also ripe for action. As Bush united 22 federal agencies ranging from Defense to Transportation to Treasury under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Obama should create a Department of Energy and Environment Security that unites overlapping and conflicting activities at the U.S. Departments of Energy, Transportation, and Agriculture, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. The envisioned agency would also expand the Coast Guard, and totally overhaul the corrupt and ineffective Minerals Management Service – effectively absorbing it, as the DHS absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And as Bush invested in developing and deploying new airport security technology like terahertz scanners, the country needs investment in developing and deploying new technology like biorefineries, bioremediation, and other alternative fuels (such as coal-bed methane) in development by startups like Luca, Taxon, Ciris, Profero, and in an ironic rhyme, by Synthetic Genomics in collaboration with BP.
* Client registration required.
To read more insights from Lux Research analysts visit Lux Populi.