Wednesday, February 08, 2006 | At last, San Diego can relax. In his State of the Union address, President Bush has thrown the gantlet to relieve the United States from petroleum blackmail from foreign producers. President Bush declared in his State of the Union address “America is addicted to oil.”

The president seems to realize at long last that petroleum is a serious drag on foreign policy. It is also been a particular drag on the price of gasoline in San Diego, among the highest in the nation. The president used a phrase that has since been retracted, namely that he would plan to “replace 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.”

Actually that could be a realistic goal if only the U.S. government understood what would be required to achieve it. Alas, there is little if any evidence that it does. Listening to media talk shows, reading commentary since the speech, suggests that many government officials and most media types should take a few good courses in basic chemistry and physics before spouting off uninformed and unrealistic prognostications about alternative fuels.

For example, drilling at Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, to relieve our dependence on foreign oil is a frivolous and distorting illusion. It will take far more oil than could be found at ANWR a decade from now to make any real difference in the availability and price of oil.

So what can the United States do to sustain the president’s recognition that the United States has got to move to liberate the country from foreign supplies of energy? It is amazing that nobody seems to know that the United States has one almost unlimited domestic resource of energy, available right now: Bituminous coal.

Unfortunately coal is a dirty fuel that is costly to handle and clean. But wait a minute! There is an old process that should be looked into seriously again. It is coal gasification, a process that dates back to the early 19th century. Partially or completely converted to purified carbon monoxide and dioxide, hydrogen, nitrogen, methane, coal gases can be used for a multitude of fuels and raw materials for fertilizers and industrial chemicals

Until 1940, gasified coal and petroleum coke were the main distributed fuels for U.S. residential and commercial use. It is only when natural gas became available at lower cost that it eventually replaced coal gases. Why then did the president not mention coal in this sense? There is precious little government impetus to encourage the coal industry to invest in the gasification of coal, for which there now exists radically improved processes.

There is much loose talk about hydrogen, a theoretically attractive fuel. Hydrogen is even more difficult to generate than most alternative fuels because most of the hydrogen on earth is tightly locked up, mostly in water. Prying oxygen from the hydrogen atoms is an extremely energy and commercially costly process.

Finally there are a number of relatively small sources of energy available from biomass, solar panels and wind that already add to our resources. Most of them could be used to generate electricity to run our vehicles, when scientists figure out how to make much lighter batteries, but that is in intensive research today.

Eventually, San Diegans could perhaps enjoy cheaper vehicular fuel, but by then efficient mass transit is likely to play an important role. But first, somebody ought to tell the president that these alternatives already exist and are mostly ready for the taking.

Elie A. Shneour, a native of France and World War II U.S. veteran, is president of Biosystems Institutes, Inc. and research director of Biosystems Research Institute of San Diego.

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