New Biofuel Law: Will it Work?

President Bush dubbed it a "major step." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed it as "a moment of change." But despite the bipartisan praise, meeting the aims of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007—signed into law last week—is not going to be easy. Among the most significant goals in the Act is a substantial increase in the production of renewable fuels for use in the nation's fuel supply.

The new law calls for 36 billion gallons of these fuels per year by 2022—nearly a fivefold increase from current production. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez discussed the practicalities and potential pitfalls of the plan with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and one of the authors of the bill. Excerpts.

NEWSWEEK: Under this law, the United States will produce 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol a year by 2015. The U.S. is producing half that amount now and corn prices have soared. How will this new goal affect the price of corn and other corn-based products?
Frankly, there's a lot we don't know about exactly how these sorts of markets interact. Right now you have a situation where the price of corn has gone up and the price of ethanol has gone down. So it's not clear that the demand for ethanol is what's driving all of the increase in the price of corn. Yes, it is a significant increase, but I think the figure is achievable based on the expert testimony that we heard at the hearings we had.

It would require an estimated 20 million more acres of corn to produce this ethanol. Could this mean fewer acres for other produce?
I don't think you're going to see people take fruit orchards out in order to plant corn to meet ethanol demand. We had several experts talk to us about the implications of going to these levels and nobody suggested that something like that would occur.

By 2022, Congress wants 21 billion gallons a year of advanced biofuels. Does the U.S. really have the technology to do this in five to 15 years?
Well I think we've got the technology, but we are now only really beginning to see commercial plants constructed to use that technology on a large scale. That's the part that's still uncertain—how rapidly you can begin producing substantial quantities from these sources. There are some people in the industry who think it can happen in the next few years. Obviously it would benefit us if it proves that it is possible. We're really betting on good ole U.S. ingenuity to find a way to accomplish this.

Only about six million cars can run on a mix of ethanol and gasoline like E85. Are there any concerns that the automotive industry won't pump up production?
The need for flex-fuel vehicles is not really mandated by this law, but independent of that, I think the auto industry is moving toward manufacturing more and more of those. For example, General Motors announced that in 2012, half of the vehicles they will be selling would be flex-fuel vehicles so they can use E85 or gasoline. I think we will continue in that direction.

Why does the Act include an escape clause?
If it could be demonstrated that this isn't feasible technologically to gear up to this level of production that's called for, then the requirement for the amount of biofuel to be produced could be waived.

It seems like there are serious goals but no concrete plan for how this technology might pan out. Isn't that a pretty big gamble?
Yes. It is a gamble, but the alternative is to continue to import more oil from overseas. There's some gamble in that too. The hope is that we can begin a process to wean ourselves off more foreign imports of oil.

What happens if the U.S. can't meet these goals or they don't produce the hoped-for results?
It depends. If we can't meet the goals in any particular year then we can adjust the requirement. If it turns out the use of biofuels doesn't prove to be a valid way to offset our need for petroleum products then we would have to put more emphasis on something else like plug-in hybrids. The truth is we are trying to move ahead in the various areas where we think technology will provide us with solutions. At this point, we don't know what will prove to me the most useful.

You said this Act would help America "be more secure in the face of uncertain world energy markets." What else has to be done in the next session and into the next presidency?
We need to continue to diversify our sources of energy. We have to make serious progress in developing plug-in hybrid technology and proliferating that so that much of our transportation needs can be met with electric power instead of petroleum products. We're also going to have to find ways to transition our whole electricity sector to production of more power from clean energy sources.

If the U.S. meets these biofuel goals, that will aid in cutting roughly 25 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that some scientists say must be eliminated by 2030. Is that enough?
There is no way we're doing enough with this law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it is a significant step in beginning to reduce them. There are a lot of other things we need to do as well. A lot of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings and coal-fired power plants. We do very little in this legislation to deal with that. So there's a lot we're not addressing. I think these are significant steps, but they're not anywhere near the level of effort bound to be required to beat the problem scientists have defined. On the other hand, this is more than we've ever done.