More than 30 years after the Arab oil embargo struck fear through much of the industrialized world and U.S. leaders vowed “never again,” here's how things stand:
Brazil, the largest country in South America, has almost unshackled itself from foreign oil. It once imported 80 percent of its crude oil; now, it expects to be self-sufficient in a few years.
Today, 40 percent of all the fuel Brazilians pump into their vehicles is ethanol, derived primarily from sugarcane bagasse. The government requires that all fuel sold within the country contain at least 25 percent ethanol.
Selling like hotcakes are new Brazilian-made automobiles with “flex” engine systems that allow them to run on gasoline, gasoline-ethanol mix, or straight ethanol. Unlike “hybrid” engine cars in the United States, they cost no more than with a conventional engine. Brazil's commercial aircraft manufacturer, Embraer, can't meet the demand for its ethanol-powered planes.
Billions of investor dollars are flowing into Brazil's ethanol sector, and the country's rural economies have received significant benefits.
Further, with more than 300 ethanol plants now online and another 50-plus in the works, Brazil is exporting ethanol like crazy to willing buyers around the world (including the United States), and it has potential for enormous production increases.
Germany, whose Rudolph Diesel invented the engine that immortalized his name, is now the world's largest producer of biodiesel, and plans to increase production a whopping 50 percent each year. The high octane, high performance fuel is made from rapeseed oil.
In dozens of other countries around the globe, serious programs are under way to loosen petroleum's stranglehold, with fuels that include ethanol and oils derived from everything from soybeans to coconuts.
The world's largest ethanol plant is up and running in China, with more like it being planned, and the country's auto plants also plan to churn out millions of flex fuel vehicles.
And in the United States?
Well, after three decades of fiddle-faddling, while becoming more dependent than ever on oil imports, the United States has finally begun a drop-in-the-bucket effort toward alternative fuels.
There are 70-some-odd plants producing 3 billion or so gallons of ethanol yearly, with a dozen or more under construction. Soydiesel production languished until last year, when Congress approved a subsidy for the fuel, but it lags far behind ethanol output.
There are reported to be 4 million U.S.-made cars on the road with flex fuel capability. My new Ford-made vehicle is one, according to the owner's manual (although there's nothing anywhere on the vehicle itself to indicate that capability).
And not that it matters a fig anyhow: I'd be up the proverbial creek if I planned my driving around flex fuel utilization. According to the map on the Web site of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, E-85 fuel is available nowhere in Mississippi; at one place in Tennessee (Nashville); and nowhere in Louisiana and Arkansas. In fact, 14 states have absolutely no availability.
And until Congress enacts measures to facilitate development of an infrastructure to make flex fuels available everywhere, as they are in Brazil, we'll still be knuckling under to Big Oil.