Industrial hemp has an unlikely new champion: former CIA director James Woolsey. Woolsey sees a link between the need to end America's oil addiction and hemp's potential as a source of renewable energy. He said so when he visited my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan last weekend as part the 2006 Powershift National Tour. According to its website the tour is "a public education effort designed to engage decision-makers, youth, farmers, media and the general public on energy security."
During a question and answer session one audience member broached the subject of hemp. Embarrassed conference organizers tried to move on to another question, but Woolsey insisted on responding. To their surprise he offered a lengthy disquisition on the merits of cellulosic ethanol as an alternative fuel, the myths about industrial hemp and the potential advantages to American farmers. And, he announced that he is a board member of the North American Industrial Hemp Council.
"If you wanted to hide marijuana in a field of industrial hemp, you'd have to be very high," Woolsey said. He explained that industrial hemp has a very low THC level compared to marijuana for recreational and medical use. (THC is the psychoactive component of marijuana.) So low is that level that placing the two plants together causes the recreational marijuana to lose its potency because of cross-pollination with the industrial version.
"There is no bigger enemy of marijuana than industrial hemp," he added. "But, the United States in its wisdom has banned all hemp--I suppose to enhance the production of marijuana," he joked.
(For some basic information on the uses of industrial hemp, try this article which states that "trying to get high from industrial grade hemp would be like trying to get drunk off vinegar.")
Woolsey's credentials on energy issues stem from his work on the National Commission on Energy Policy, an independent commission formed by several foundations and designed to break the policy logjam on energy issues. Woolsey has become an advocate for quick changes that involve "inexpensive processes and relatively little change to the infrastructure."
Hence, he is a fervent advocate of biofuels of all kinds which can be dispensed at existing filling stations. He's also an advocate for hybrid-electric vehicles and is particularly keen on the development of plug-in hybrids since they can "fill up" on cheap electricity at night.
Because of his focus, he sees hydrogen as impractical. "Under current technology you'd have to completely replace the energy infrastructure of the country," Woolsey said during his keynote luncheon speech. "Well, who goes first? The energy infrastructure or Detroit." The country could end up with cars without fuel or fuel without cars, he explained. Neither the oil industry nor the car industry wants to risk such a situation.
His main focus these days is supply disruption, the consequences of which he helped demonstrate during a slickly produced simulation called "Oil Shockwave." The simulation shows how severe even a modest disruption could be and how little the United States could do to mitigate the effects of such a disruption. (The results of a simulation done last year with a group of high-ranking former government officials in Washington, D. C. are available here in PDF form.)
"A cutoff of oil, even a relatively brief one, sends huge shocks through our economy," he said during his speech. "Very substantial changes in price occur with small changes in supply."
At the root of the problem is dependence on oil from the Middle East. Referring to the Bush administration's so-called "War on Terror," Woolsey said, "This is the first war in which we are paying for both sides." He explained that a portion of the money paid to Middle Eastern countries for America's imported oil ends up in the hands of terrorists and others who preach hatred of the United States. "This is not a good plan," he said.
Concerning the idea the oil supplies worldwide may soon peak and then decline, Woolsey said, "I think there are good arguments for peak oil." In the question and answer session, he said he had no clear understanding of the possible timing for such an event, but added that he is currently reading energy investment banker Matthew Simmons' book Twilight in the Desert which makes a case for a near-term peak for Saudi Arabia and by implication for the world.