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This, and no other, is the road to Independence.
China has decided to replace gasoline with alternative fuels. But unlike the United States and Brazil, where the favorite substitute is ethanol, China has embraced a different alcohol: methanol. Several provinces in China already blend their gasoline with methanol, a clear, colorless liquid also known as wood alcohol, and scores of methanol plants are currently under construction there. The Chinese auto industry has already begun to produce flex-fuel models that can run on methanol. Shanxi, a province in central China that produces much of the country's coal, has even issued stickers granting cars that use pure methanol free passage on the province's toll roads.

The distinction between methanol and ethanol is just one letter (but then, so is the difference between Iran and Iraq). Both biofuels should be in our basket of options. True, ethanol packs more energy per gallon and is less corrosive than methanol. But methanol is cheaper and far easier to produce in bulk. While ethanol can be made only from agricultural products such as corn and sugar cane, methanol can be made from natural gas, coal, industrial garbage and even recycled carbon dioxide captured from power stations' smokestacks -- an elegant way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural-gas vehicles are nowhere to be seen. Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol is barred from the country by a steep 54-cent-per-gallon import tariff, courtesy of ethanol protectionists and their representatives in Congress. (No tariff is imposed on imported oil, of course.) For similar reasons, flex-fuel cars sold in the United States are certified to run only on ethanol, keeping methanol and other viable biofuels off the market -- even though they are cheaper and can be made from a wealth of coal and biomass resources.

It's time to get serious. Policies such as "drill more" and "drive smaller cars" all keep us running on petroleum.

he hard truth is that real energy independence can be achieved only through fuel choice and competition. That competition cannot take place as long as (according to the Department of Transportation) we continue to put 16 million new cars that run only on petroleum on our roads every year, each with an average street life of 16.8 years -- thereby locking ourselves into decades more of petroleum dependence.

If every new car sold in the United States were a flex-fuel vehicle and if millions of Americans could plug in their electric cars, gasoline would be facing fierce competition at the pump and the socket. Moreover, our money would have migrated from Exxon to Pepco, from the Middle East to the Midwest -- as well as to scores of poor, biomass-producing countries in Africa, Latin America and South Asia, including the few countries that don't yet hate our guts. This, and no other, is the road to Independence.


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