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Stephan B. Tanda Headshot

Grow, Baby, Grow

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Who could forget Sarah Palin's famous line during the 2008 presidential campaign: "Drill, baby, drill!" With the current environmental and economic disaster in the Gulf, dwindling supplies of crude oil, and the looming threat of climate change we are compelled to revisit this mantra and ask, is this really the answer?

For the last fifty years, fueled by a abundant and cheap petrochemicals, and living by mantras similar to Mrs. Palin's famous "drill, baby, drill" the United States become the global leader in the manufacture of chemicals and plastics. This explosion of growth in the building of refineries, chemical processing plants, manufacturing operations and supporting industries created tens of millions of good paying jobs, and a standard of living and prosperity that was the envy of the world. The industrial revolution reshaped the landscape of America, and its position on the world stage forever.

The last two decades have brought a new chapter in the story. Millions of jobs in the chemical and plastics industry have been lost in the US. These jobs have moved overseas, where oil is more plentiful, and environmental issues less of a concern. These jobs are not coming back, and those that have been left behind are not the high paying, stable jobs of decades past. We cannot drill our way out of this hole, and the US cannot drill its way to renewed prosperity.

Tuesday June 29, 2010, the World Economic Forum released its long awaited report entitled "The Future of Industrial Biorefineries." This landmark report noted that the global market for bio-based products, products derived from renewable biomass not petroleum products, will grow strongly over the next few years. The foundation for this growth is irreversible, and undeniable:

  • Conventional crude oil will get scarce;
  • There is a growing need for national energy security;
  • Public pressure and awareness around environmental sustainability; and
  • Rapid demographic growth driving demand through the economic aspirations in the developing world.

The US is uniquely positioned to once again by a world leader in the manufacture of chemicals and plastics, not from oil, but from home grown biomass such as corn stover, switchgrass and other cellulosic material.

At this dawn of the second industrial revolution, the US stands on the precipice of creating millions of new jobs in the second generation cellulosic biobased products sector, and billions in economic growth. According to the WEF report referenced above, revenue potential from the biomass value chain could by $295B by 2030.

The US enjoys a unique position as a consequence of several factors: a strong industrial biotech industry base and R&D efforts; good agricultural resources that can produce adequate supplies of biomass feedstock economically and sustainably without adversely affecting food security; it remains the largest plastics and chemical market in the world; and has a solid infrastructure base of railroads, rivers, roads and ports that can support the logistics necessary to make this second, green, industrial revolution a reality.

But what stands in the way of unleashing this engine of economic growth? What is the necessary catalyst to end the inertia, and begin to return to the American people good, stable, well paying jobs in an environmentally sustainable manner? Politics. As Congress debates potential Energy and Climate Change legislation along party lines, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil leak into the gulf. As political pundits debate the veracity of global warming science, millions of American jobs move overseas.

Now is the time for America's elected officials to put aside party politics and work cooperatively on solutions, not mantras and slogans. We can grow our way out of the current economic malaise, not through deficits and stimulus, but through early adaptation and commercialization of bio-based products, with feedstock grown on American land, and biorefineries employing American citizens. On this eve of the celebration of American independence, let's think about independence in a new way.

How do we get there?

We need Congress to pass a comprehensive Energy and Climate Bill, a Bill that does not just tax carbon, a cost which would be simply passed onto consumers, but a Bill that creates meaningful and material incentives to industry to adopt biorefining practices, and the use of bio-based products.

Production tax credits, emissions caps, investing 100% of any revenues derived from a carbon tax into the creation of a bio-based economy are all starting points for a meaningful and substantive dialogue on how best to grow this embryonic industry. Industry and government must be invited to work together to create legislation that does not simply punish carbon users, but creates competitive advantage for those who embrace new manufacturing processes. The technology is there. Challenges concerning logistics, feedstocks and applications can be overcome.

The US people want to get back to work, and understand and appreciate the need for environmental sustainability. All that remains is the political will, courage and leadership of our elected officials. They must look beyond party lines, mantras and slogans, outdated philosophies and the practices of the past. We are counting on them to create a green America; one we can grow together through bi-partisan action on meaningful and progressive Energy and Climate Change legislation.

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