The Fearless Emergency of Now

By Todd Atkinson | August 29, 2012

Since the 20th century, scientists have worked to cure cancer. They have yet to succeed. 
Many researchers develop hypotheses that end in disappointment, with the death rate from cancer remaining a challenge. Yet the public sector continues to invest billions of dollars toward a cure.
That’s because Americans don’t give up. Despite the costs, the stakes are too high. But most important, from each setback along the journey blooms multiple avenues of discovery, generating possibilities that we ask doctors to implement at once, especially when the prognosis is dire and time is running out. My point is when Americans try, Americans achieve, moving the needle forward, and bringing the final destination within reach.  

That confidence in American ingenuity is absent in recent efforts to block the U.S. Navy from acquiring biofuels for our military fleet with the notion that biofuels are too expensive, and thus questionable to pursue. 

Unsurprisingly, researchers often argue that more study is needed. But sometimes there is a time to think, and a time to act. Yes, federal investments in energy technologies entail risk, and that’s the point. It must strike that sweet spot between what the public will tolerate and what banks cannot, sometimes getting it wrong. Even one isolated misstep can unleash a swarm of criticism that can sting decision makers into stasis.

But the time has expired for blocking American innovation that will pull our country into the future.
Microwaves, cellphones, GPS devices and digital photography, all once unaffordable national security technologies originating with the military, today are affordably commonplace among civilians. Are domestic biofuels less important to national security, or somehow impervious to cost reductions?
Five years ago, the leadership of the 110th Congress created the updated renewable fuels standard to add 20 billion more gallons of biofuels by 2022 than is in the marketplace today, plus the Biomass Crop Assistance Program to begin growing the non-food crops for these fuels. Now these groundbreaking policies, too, face opposition, while special breaks for century-old, mature fuel industries continue.

Biofuels are too expensive? Pew Charitable Trusts reports the Pentagon spent $8 billion on 130 million barrels of oil in 2005, a cost that doubled in three years for the same volume. Discontinue federal efforts on biofuels, and we’ll learn more about real fuel costs.

The American people have little appetite for inaction. That’s why USDA keeps moving forward on domestic bioenergy investments because success is achieved only when the “impossible” is pressed into service. We’ll never catch lightening in a bottle if we refuse to stand in the rain. 

Author: Todd Atkinson
Senior Energy Advisor, USDA Undersecretary of Farm and
Foreign Agricultural Service