Commentary

According to the book Zoom, which analyzes the role cars and energy play in the global economy, Osama Bin Laden a few years ago gave a speech he called his “Letter to the American People.”

In it, the leader of Al Qaeda accuses the U.S. of the “biggest theft in history” for using its presence in Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices down.

Bin Laden says America now owes every Muslim in the world $30,000, or a total of $36 trillion. He is clear about how this debt should be paid: oil priced at $144 per barrel.

Analysts speculate the quickest means to such an exorbitant price would be a 9/11-style attack on one of Saudi Arabia’s major refineries, or Ras Tanura, the world’s largest oil-export terminal, an attack fictionally depicted in the movie “Syriana.”

Oil was $10 a barrel in 1999. It now is hovering near $120 per barrel. Yet, Bin Laden may get his target price soon without attacking anything if obstructionists and misguided environmentalists get their way.

That’s because biofuels, the best-proven means for breaking the addiction to oil, now are being demonized by environmentalists and much of the popular media.

These are the usual talking points:

Corn-based ethanol is a wasteful, government-subsidized boondoggle.

The strategy of using cellulosic ethanol to replace conventional ethanol made from agricultural feedstocks a few years from now, after demand has been nurtured and a distribution network developed, is a pipe dream.

Brazil’s success in freeing itself from petro-slavery by replacing 45% of its gasoline consumption with sugarcane ethanol and flexible-fuel cars is meaningless because it hurts the rainforest.

The underlying theme: Biofuels do not play an immediate role in curbing global warming, so they are worthless. And because biofuels are one of the factors driving up global food prices, they are evil, too.

These critics ignore the economic and political benefits biofuels offer. They also close their eyes to the fact soaring oil prices fuel inflation, hurt the poor and make food more costly. Imagine what oil at $144 per barrel will do to the cost of a bus ticket or gallon of milk.

Biofuels can shield us from a politically instigated 1979-style oil shock, or shortages created by hurricanes as well as terrorism. Biofuels also can limit skyrocketing gasoline and diesel prices simply by being viable alternatives.

This is the model Brazil, the world’s fifth-largest vehicle market, has created.

Thanks to flex-fuel vehicles, Brazilian consumers can cross-shop gasoline and ethanol blends. That creates competition and stabilizes prices.

It is no coincidence that while most of the world’s petroleum-dependent countries are staggering toward recession, Brazil’s economy is booming.

Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, a Venezuelan founder of OPEC, once described oil as “the devil’s excrement” because of all the trouble it causes.

Zoom painstakingly documents how oil wealth props up dictators and repressive regimes, prevents economies from diversifying in a manner that promotes healthy growth, funds terrorism and encourages civil war.

The U.S. consumes 25% of the world’s daily oil production, yet it has only 3% of its proven reserves. It cannot break its addiction to foreign oil by adding wells in the Alaskan wilderness or mandating tougher fuel economy standards.

The authors of Zoom conclude: “Oil is the problem. Cars are the solution.”

Biofuels allow cars to become that solution faster than any other technology. They must be supported.

dwinter@wardsauto.com