On the Clean Road Again: Biodiesel and the Future of the Family Farmby Willie Nelson
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For more than 40 years, Willie Nelson has been a national treasure, contributing many memorable songs to our musical canon. His impact, however, extends far beyond the scope of his music. A champion of family farms, Nelson has helped mobilize support for the American farmer, both as a founder of Farm Aid and more recently as one of the nation's most knowledgeable and recognized advocates of the use of biodiesel—a clean-burning, renewable fuel made from vegetable oils or animal fats. In this funny and inspirational book, Nelson confronts our dependency on foreign oil as a source of energy. Through facts, stories, and interviews with everyday Americans, he explains the benefits of biodiesel as an alternative fuel that not only drastically reduces carbon dioxide emissions, but also may help save our family farms.
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On the Clean Road Again
Biodiesel and the Future of the Family Farm
By Willie Nelson
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2007 Willie Nelson
All rights reserved.
Part I: The Past
The Black Mistress
When I began to research biodiesel and what it could mean for the family farmer, I discovered that the notion of our American farmers growing fuel for the nation isn't even new. We started using vegetable oil in big engines in the late 1800s, when the first diesel engine was introduced.
German inventor Rudolf Diesel presented the peanut oil — fueled Black Mistress to the world in 1893. Since then, diesel engines have become an everyday staple in the lives of billions of people around the world. They're in the farm equipment out in the cotton fields around my Texas hometown; there's one in my farming friend Morris Russell's old pickup; there are three in my buses, one in my nephew Freddie's boat, and thousands in the trains that run through the middle of Abbott. Do you know the most amazing thing about the diesel engine? It's now over 100 years old and it still runs on peanut oil.
According to historians, Rudolf Diesel was a pacifist and the thought of his wonderful humanitarian machine being used as a war weapon repulsed him. World War I had begun, and the Germans were putting the diesel engine in their U-boats. He voiced his opposition loudly, but was silenced forever by his mysterious death on September 30, 1913, after either being thrown overboard or committing suicide by jumping into the English Channel. He was fifty-five years old. Rudolf Diesel may be gone, but the children of his Black Mistress still live on.
About the time the diesel engine was gaining popularity, the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, picked up on another German idea and encouraged our farmers to begin growing the United States' fuel. Germany was seeing tremendous success with growing rape, an inedible plant with very high oil content. The ingenious German people were burning rapeseed oil in their homes for light and heat, replacing the usual kerosene and whale oil.
President Roosevelt wanted to see the same success for American farmers. He spearheaded legislation lifting taxes on alcohol for industrial uses, which included the production of ethanol. Ethanol is a made by fermenting grain, starchy vegetables such as corn or potatoes, or even sugary plants like cane or sugar beets. The fermented alcohol is then burned as fuel. In the spring, American farmers grew the corn, potatoes, or grain and then brewed their fall harvest in simple stills, transforming the sugary concoction into alcohol. Farmers began lighting houses, farms, and businesses and running equipment on the result: free fuel.
Understanding and appreciating the commercial value of our farmers is important for any president, then and now. President Roosevelt felt the American farmer could produce all the food and fuel this country could ever consume, and he was right. They could then, and they can now.
In President Roosevelt's day, petroleum was mostly being used for heating and lighting. Its full potential wouldn't become clear until 1908, when Henry Ford introduced the Model T to the world. America would fall in love with the car and, in so many ways, never be the same again.
The incredible Model T was a flex-fuel automobile, designed to run on either the plant-based fuel called ethanol or a product on the market called petroleum gasoline.
By 1920, millions of automobiles were traveling millions of miles and our nation's farmers were experiencing a huge economic boom in ethanol production and sales. Farmers successfully grew, processed, distributed, and sold the plant-based fuel. Life was looking good for the American family farmer — just before the bottom fell out, anyway. This era would prove to be essentially the last time in history that the American farmer could go to sleep feeling that he could wake up the next morning and still be assured of make a living for his family.
I'm Drowning in a Whiskey River
Eventually, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company wanted in on this poker game with the farmers and their newfound fortune in fuel. Standard Oil began to sell ethanol at their gas stations across the United States and, practically by sundown, had cornered 25 percent of the farmers' ethanol market. They reduced the price of petroleum gasoline, selling it well below cost. Then, like clockwork, things began to get worse for the American farmer.
In 1920, for whatever reason, Prohibition came along and outlawed all alcohol production in the United States. But this questionable, unpopular law didn't just pertain to whiskey production; congressional rulings also made it illegal for any farmer to brew the new fuel called ethanol, as it required the vegetable or grain to be distilled into alcohol. Every ethanol distillery in the United States was declared illegal and ordered dismantled. When the defiant farmers didn't comply with the national law, they were fined or jailed, or sometimes both. Either way, federal Prohibition agents or their deputies would destroy the ethanol stills on the spot.
One minute the farmers were doing what the president of the United States asked them to do — produce a food-based fuel — and the next minute they were declared outlaws for doing it. Let's ask ourselves what exactly was the result of thirteen years of Prohibition, besides an incredibly dangerous upswing in organized crime? Nearly a quarter million American family farms went under. All we need to do is ask ourselves who could possibly have profited from Prohibition and we'll see the bigger picture of the reasoning behind it.
In 1931, after eleven years of Prohibition and twenty-three years of producing flex-fuel automobiles that could run on either ethanol or gasoline, Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company stopped building cars that would run on ethanol. Coincidentally, Prohibition ended two years later, in 1933.
So as you can see, today's renewable-fuel movement isn't the first time the American farmer has found himself in direct competition with the big oil companies. But with the seemingly never-ending conflicts in the Middle East and huge oil shortages looming in the near future, this may be the first time in a while that the oil companies have actually needed what the American farmer has to offer: fuel to burn.
To All the Oils I've Loved Before
I thought biodiesel was a well-kept secret when I first began my investigation into alternative fuels, only to find I was light-years behind millions of people who not only had heard of biodiesel — with annual sales of 25 million gallons — but already had a biodiesel infrastructure in place. I did the same thing with Julio Iglesias.
One day I heard Julio singing on the radio, and I was so excited, I wanted to record with him and introduce him to the world. As it turns out, he had already been introduced to the world, and the world had been buying millions of his records for years. Once again, I was the one who needed the introduction.
I also needed to understand a little bit about the business of oil to get an accurate understanding of the business of biodiesel. In 1860, the first year of extensive commercial oil production, 500,000 gallons of rock oil were sold. As a point of reference, in 2005 the world burned 3 billion gallons of oil per day and pumped out 30 billion barrels. With U.S. oil output at the lowest level since the 1950s, we spend more money on oil than any other imported commodity. In this country, we have gone from the first line of Henry Ford's Model Ts to the current number of 130 million cars on the road today.
When it's plentiful, oil can bubble up to the surface of the ground on its own, and you can dig it up with a spoon. They say parts of the Middle East and Africa are like that today. In this country, Native Americans such as the Seneca were smart enough to use it for medicine for centuries. They had a slow, painstaking skimming method of catching the sacred oil. Much later, George Bissell came along and had the unique idea of drilling into the ground to get to the oil, and he hired Edwin L. Drake to do just that. On August 27, 1859, Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the United States' first real oil well was born.
When the Seneca Oil Company was formed in 1858 by Bissell and several other investors, oil sold for $40 per barrel. But the inexperienced oil tycoons pumped too much too fast and flooded the market. Oil prices tanked and, after one year, oil dropped to a dime per barrel.
For nearly a decade, the Seneca Oil Company was the only big winner of the high-stakes poker game called the oil business. Then a Mr. Rockefeller wanted to play.
In 1870, John D. Rockefeller began Standard Oil Company with $4,000 of borrowed money. Oil consumption worldwide had grown from 500,000 gallons in 1860 to 20 million barrels per year in 1880. Seneca Oil and other smaller oil companies tried to compete with Standard Oil in this growing market, and Seneca Oil succeeded, but Rockefeller succeeded even more. Then it was the U.S. government's turn to deal.
In 1911, the Supreme Court ruled that Rockefeller had the game locked up and declared Standard Oil Company a monopoly. This forced Rockefeller to divide up Standard Oil and create seven new companiesÂ — oil conglomerates that would later become known as the Seven Sisters. Standard Oil of New Jersey eventually changed her name to Exxon; Standard Oil of New York became Mobil; Continental Oil became Conoco; Atlantic Oil would change her name to ARCO; Standard Oil of California became known as Chevron; Standard Oil of Ohio became the U.S. stepsister of British Petroleum; and Standard Oil of Indiana became the U.S. stepsister of Amoco. The Seven Sisters would eventually be called Exxon, Chevron, Texaco, Shell, British Petroleum (BP), Mobil, and Gulf.
Seventy years after Seneca Oil Company overproduced and caused the price of oil to plummet, Texas would discover the largest oil field on record and again flood the market in the process. Outside Beaumont, Texas, on a knoll known as Spindletop, Anthony Lucas and his crew struck oil in a big way. It was the largest gusher to date, and it dramatically changed the landscape of the oil business. Some consider Spindletop the beginning of the modern petroleum industry.
By the 1930s, oil had become more than a personal luxury item; at an annual consumption of 2 billion barrels, it was an immediate necessity. Price stabilization of petroleum was determined to be of national importance, and the U.S. government stepped in and created the Texas Railroad Commission (TRRC). The government authorized the TRRC to shut down production on several Texas oil wells, creating chaos in the fields. Martial law was declared, and troops were brought in to keep order. Sometimes order just doesn't want to be kept, and many of the oil companies smuggled out the oil anyway.
Today's oil business has changed considerably since the Texas wildcatting days, when you operated on a hunch and a hope — the hope of striking it rich merely by drilling a hole in the ground. Now, equipment can tell exactly where a well should and should not be drilled; but I don't hear bells ringing and whistles blowing signaling too many new gushers. Researchers say 65 to 70 percent of oil today comes from fields discovered before 1970 and 80 to 90 percent of the planet's remaining oil has already been discovered.
Turn Out the Lights, the Party's Over
According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States consumes 125 billion gallons of gasoline per year and 60 billion gallons of diesel and ethanol per year. Three billion gallons of petroleum are burned daily in one form or another. At our peak, we produced 11 million gallons per day. It's hardly debated that the Earth's supply of petroleum-based oil will be exhausted within the next fifty years. In 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert accurately predicted for his bosses at Shell Oil Company that the Texas-U.S. oil supply would peak in 1970 — 71, and it did. This led to the prolific scientific prediction "Where goes Texas, so goes the planet."
Some say, Drill in Alaska, we've still got oil! But who actually profits from that besides the oil companies? Not America, not in the long run. Not at a one cent per gallon savings at the pump; according to experts, that's all drilling in Alaska will bring us, besides environmental devastation and pollution. We can't trade in the pristine beauty of our last expanse of wilderness for the possibility of a fantasy decade or two of cheaper oil. The price of oil goes up at the drop of a hat, no matter where you're pulling it out of the ground or how much we really have under there. Just look at today's newspapers.
Right now, half of the existing pipeline in Alaska is shut off or broken-down completely, causing oil prices to soar. Then there's the huge new offshore oil field recently discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. That discovery would have sounded more promising had we not just gone through a Category 5 hurricane (Katrina) in that same gulf.
In the 1950s, the Seven Sisters set the price of oil. At the present time, only four sisters are remaining: BP, Shell, Exxon/Mobil, and Chevron/Texaco. I've also heard them referred to in the business as Kathy, Janet, Dianne, and Peggy. No, I take that back, that's the Lennon Sisters ... my mistake.
These days, one rash decision from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and we're paying double at the pumps. Drilling for Alaskan oil is no permanent solution. Why ruin the last real frontier in America by drilling in Alaska? That oil will certainly run out eventually. Then what? Are we like desperate teenagers thoughtlessly selling Grandpa's treasured gold watch the second we're broke? Are immature minds considering only our immediate needs with no thought of the long-term consequences?
Middle Eastern oil is no permanent solution. Gulf oil is not the solution. Fossil fuels are not the solution, no matter what country they come from. Not when wars have to be fought to secure the rights. Not when the emissions are killing people. Not when wildlife and ecosystems are disturbed or destroyed forever. Not when all we have to do is grow our own fuel crops instead of burning fossil fuels. We need to conserve our natural resources, not continue to search for new ways to waste them.
I Get My Energy from the Sun
Mother Earth has remarkably produced enough oil to amply serve the hungry planet, but no feast lasts forever. Folks disagree on how much oil we still have, what's the best way to go get it, where not to get it, or how using it is affecting the planet. No one can argue this fact of life: when it's gone, it's gone.
If you think about it, all energy on Earth comes from the Sun in one way or another. Oil is basically hydrogen and carbon, or hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are stored energy from the Sun, so oil is just another form of solar energy. When you burn oil, hydrocarbons give off light and heat — light and heat that was stored from the Sun.
Because the laws of nature still prevail, by all estimates we'll eventually come to the end of Mother Earth's generous portions of fossil fuels. This will create a catastrophic energy crisis if we're not prepared, and the laws of physics dictate that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed. It's time to concentrate on the only thing we can do: change.CHAPTER 2
Part II: The Future
I sensibly waited to be born until Prohibition was lifted in 1933. My parents lived with my grandparents in the tiny cotton-farming community of Abbott, Texas. I come from an extensive family background in transportation. My father was a Ford mechanic and my grandfather was the town blacksmith. Our family relied heavily on good horsepower.
I guess Daddy Nelson knew that his profession of blacksmithing probably wouldn't carry me very far. Before my grandfather died when I was six years old, he bought me a guitar, taught me a few chords, and sent me out into the world with a profession that would last me a lifetime. I can never thank him enough.
Growing up, my sister, Bobbie, and I sure picked our share of cotton. We had a cotton gin in Abbott, so our loads didn't have far to travel. Abbott cotton was planted, picked, and processed right there in town. The cotton was then taken a few miles down the road to the Corsicana Cotton Mill, where it was spun into thread, placed on spools, and taken to the textile mills in Fort Worth. All this was accomplished within a fifty-mile radius. From seed to store within fifty miles — that's the efficient way. Today, we might grow the cotton in one state, truck it to another for ginning, another for the mills, and yet another for distribution. That cotton has traveled 1,000 road miles before it makes it to the consumer. Think how far the imported goods have to travel, shipped thousands of miles, consuming hundreds of gallons of fuel, when all we had to do was produce it locally like we used to do in Abbott.
Excerpted from On the Clean Road Again by Willie Nelson. Copyright © 2007 Willie Nelson. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Willie Nelson, originally from the tiny farming community of Abbott, Texas, boasts a legendary career as a singer, songwriter, and actor. This American icon has also established himself as an advocate for the family farmer with his annual Farm Aid concerts and his recent venture in biodiesel.
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