Obama’s campaign push for biofuels evokes Carter’s 1980 State of the Union address

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Last week on the campaign trail at Ohio State University, President Barack Obama told a crowd of 2,600 students that drilling for more oil was not the solution to the energy problems of the United States, saying that wind, solar power and synthetic fuels were what were needed for the future.

“We’ve added enough oil and gas pipeline to circle the entire earth and then some,” Obama said of oil exploration. “The problem is not that we’re not drilling or that we’re not producing more oil.”

Throughout his tour of Ohio and other key battleground states vital for re-election in November, the president touched on similar themes and touted his biofuels initiatives. A key liberal ally — the League of Conservation Voters — assisted in the effort, launching a six-figure TV ad campaign promoting alternative fuels.

Experts told The Daily Caller that the retail politics of alternative energy haven’t changed much, if at all, since President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 State of the Union — in which he asked Congress to budget for more spending on solar energy and for the nation’s “most massive peacetime investment in the development of synthetic fuels.” The politics, they said, are not likely to change any time soon either.

“Thirty years ago, under President Jimmy Carter, there was an ‘oil crisis,’” Marita Noon, executive director of the conservative think tank Energy Makes America Great, told TheDC. “Following the belief that the world was running out of oil, a quest for renewable energy was launched.”

At that time ethanol, a biofuel made from corn and gasoline, was deemed the “holy grail” of alternative energy sources, Noon said. Today the honors go to algae, which President Obama cheered a few weeks ago as the consumer fuel of the future. (RELATED: Full coverage of the Obama presidency)

But ethanol did not match the performance expected of its backers. “After 30 years of government funding, extracted from taxpayers, ethanol is still a bit player and would have completely disappeared from the discussion without subsidies and mandates,” Noon told TheDC.

Liberal politicians are not the only ones to embrace alternative fuels. This week in the United Kigdom, Prime Minister David Cameron advocated for the creation of a “low carbon economy” through green technologies. He wants the House of Commons to include more funding for green technologies in its new budget.

There is skepticism for this approach. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has been getting White House attention with calls for more drilling for oil and $2.50-per-gallon gasoline, which were referenced by Obama in his speech in Ohio. Gingrich and others have called for creativity in finding more domestic sources of oil.

“Due to human ingenuity, and modern technology, we keep finding more and more oil and natural gas,” Noon said. “There is no shortage.”

There has been some limited success with biofuels, but for niche markets rather than the mass market.

“Technical progress in aviation biofuels has been significant over the last five years,” Graham Warwick, an editor at Aviation Week, told TheDC.

Synthetic biofuels that have seen successes are made from coal, gas and biomass, as well as from hydro-treated esters and fatty acids from vegetable oils and animal fats.

Alternative fuel projects are being funded by the U.S. Navy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy, which Carter created.

“Aviation is seen as the ideal starter market for these advanced fuels, as there is a clearly defined market: an established, yet limited distribution infrastructure — airports,” Warwick said.

The vegetable oil and fatty acid-based fuels are not having an impact on the airlines yet, however. “Commercial progress has been far less,” Warwick cautioned.

Thirty years ago, President Carter spoke of alternative energy with the same conviction that President Obama does today, saying, “Congress must act promptly now to complete final action on this vital energy legislation.”

But even a renewed effort on renewables by President Obama is not likely to make the internal combustion engine a rusting relic at the Smithsonian any time soon. That effort, experts told TheDC, is best left up to the market.

“While the government continues to be extremely supportive of the biofuels initiative in form, in substance I believe they do not have the technical capability to evaluate and efficiently allocate capital to meet this mandate in a free market environment,” Gary W. Luce, CEO of Terrabon, Inc., a bioenergy developer, said.