With global oil reserves estimated at between 2 trillion and 3 trillion barrels, and global daily consumption of oil for fuel at about 85 million barrels, the last gallon of petro-fuel will burp out of an exhaust pipe sometime between 2070 and 2102.
According to Andrew Couch, coordinator of the West Tennessee Clean Cities Coalition, expanding biodiesel and ethanol capacity could push this extraordinary day further into the future, perhaps buying enough time for development of a new abundant fuel source, maybe hydrogen, solar power, ethanol made from municipal waste or a combination of many sources.
There are some minor problems to overcome in the short-term for biodiesel, according to Couch. “The good thing about ethanol is that you don’t need a lot of extra processing between the field and the ethanol plant,” Couch said. “With biodiesel, we have to have crushers, a convenient source of rendering the oil and meal from the beans or oilseed. It could do a lot for farming if we could make that happen.”
To be successful, the Mid-South needs government incentives for building new plants. But it also needs to build markets for meal. “A soybean is 80 percent meal and 20 percent oil. Even canola is half and half. You’re just as much in the meal business, the protein business, as you are in the oil business. That’s a roadblock, suddenly bringing all this meal into the market. But it’s simple logistics. They’re more like potholes.”
Long-term, however, soybeans and corn may not necessarily be the biofuel feedstocks of the future, according to Couch. “I am a huge proponent of making fuel out of soybeans, but we’re still in the infancy of (making biofuels). As convinced as we are that we can make biodiesel from canola and soybeans, these are obviously not the only things that will work. We thought for a long time that petroleum was the only thing. We have to look at the long-term. What is going to work?”
Likewise, ethanol may not be the best use for corn in the long run, according to Couch. “But for right now, it’s a step in the right direction. Automobile manufacturers are cooperating with these new fuel producers. We’re taking the right steps.”
In any event, demand for fuel is not likely to slacken. “We’re going to need everything we can get our hands on to use for fuel — including all the petroleum we can find, not just because we’re running out of petroleum throughout the world, but because the people who have petroleum around the world don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart.”
Future automobiles could run on hydrogen, or perhaps ethanol made from municipal waste. The latter “is very promising because we have an endless supply. If we can prove the financial efficacy, it will help a lot.”
In the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities for agriculture, and the Mid-South is poised to grab them. “I see more winter crop options for agriculture, such as rapeseed and canola. One part of the year, the crusher could be working with soybeans, the other with canola or rapeseed.
“The agricultural community, before anybody else, has a deeply vested interest in seeing this work,” Couch said. “When you read quotes from Rudolph Diesel and Henry Ford, they both said essentially the same thing. They wanted the agricultural community to see the benefit of the fuel market.
“The reason we didn’t was because we already had a huge petroleum industry set up for chemicals and lamp oil, and it was dying on the vine. The internal combustion engine came along and when the choice was there over 100 years ago to make fuel from agricultural products or petroleum, the decision was simple. They already had tons of petroleum. They had no concept of what was left in the ground.”
In what time is left for fossil fuel, Couch suggests wise use of fuel rather than conservation. “Like your grandmother told you, ‘Waste not, want not.’ It’s like the sign at the buffet. Take what you want, but eat what you take.”
In the coming years, Americans will change the way they shop and use their automobiles, according to Couch. “We have to make our systems more efficient, our vehicles more efficient, and reduce our waste. It’s hard to tell people to conserve because it insinuates that there is not enough of something. It causes panic and people buy more of it.”
Couch is doing his part to promote biofuels. The West Tennessee Clean Cities Coalition was started in July 2005 to increase use of alternative fuels and alternative fuel vehicles and to expand access to alternative fuel. Two years ago, Couch started Deep Fried Rides, a system that allows diesel engines to operate on waste vegetable oil. His personal automobile operates on 100 percent soydiesel.
“We have enjoyed cheap energy for a long time,” Couch added. “It’s made our country an incredible place to live. But our price at the pump is grossly different than the cost to our nation (over $300 million is sent to foreign oil producers every day).
“It’s important to understand that we have a chance — with increased domestic renewable fuel production and increased fuel economy standards for vehicles and wiser use of our vehicles and transportation fuel — to become a lot more energy independent. We’re not in as terrible a spot as it may seem. We need to get behind the biofuels industry and give it the necessary support.”