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Run your car from golden fields?

Friday 16 September 2005

As the world is rocked by yet another crisis, and panic buying empties petrol filling stations, our countryside correspondent John Sheard examines an alternative to reoccurring oil problems: grow you own.

IT IS only human nature, I suppose, to tire of flogging a dead horse, as I have done on many subjects for many a long year past. Then, suddenly, the corpse stirs, pulls itself to it four somewhat shaky legs, and staggers away.

This raises a big question: is the old steed hobbling back into the sunset - or gathering strength for a new dawn?

For years, I have been writing about agricultural visionaries who have been campaigning for much of their lives for biofuels to be taken seriously. Even now, not many people - and no politicians at all, as far as I can tell - realise that you can make very efficient fuel from renewable vegetable sources ranging from linseed rape to (the latest craze) elephant grass.

Oilseed rape – the English Texas?

Virtually all those schemes have been carefully pigeon holed and forgotten by the people in Westminster and Whitehall probably because, as townies, they associate such ideas with a lunatic fringe of county yokels who go about their business in smocks and straw hats.

Then comes yet another oil crisis and these daft ideas are pulled out to be given another airing. This happened this week when petrol blockades were threatened as prices soared past the £1 a litre mark because of a dreadful combination of Middle East terrorism, Hurricane Katrina, and old Steel Sporran himself, Chancellor Gordon Brown, imposer of the highest fuel taxes in Europe.

In all the doom and gloom I read during the week, the only sensible words came from Julian Gairdner, arable editor of Farmers' Weekly, who knows about these things (see News).

He says that England's countryside could provide the oilfields of the future given proper encouragement. One hectare of oilseed rape, whose golden fields are now a regular part of our landscape, can produce enough biodiesel to run a car for 19,000 miles - and would slash our greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.

Unfortunately, Julian is merely a hack, a man who goes out into the countryside to see it at work, not a slick-suited mandarin behind a desk in Whitehall who considers clipping his hedge in Surrey as working with nature. And we all know who makes the decisions in such cases.

Some five years or so ago, farmers in East Yorkshire had been encouraged to plant fast-growing willow copses that could be burned to make electricity in a specially adapted mini-power station being built for the experiment. It was never finished - and the farmers were left with lots of willow too small, sadly, to even make cricket bats.

There have been experiments which seem even dafter - but have worked. Like the man who runs his cars on treated waste oil from fish-and-chip shops (apparently the smell is a bit of an off-putter). And now there is talk of our farmers growing eight-foot-high elephant grass to fuel small local power stations.

My colleagues and I have written about such schemes time and time again and nothing has happened. But then, we're just hacks without desks in Whitehall or (I doubt) hedges in Surrey.

Why, I don't even possess a pigeonhole. So despite this week's petrol crisis, I doubt anything will happen now to turn those golden fields of oilseed rape into the next Texas.

You see, old Steel Sporran gets 40p a litre every time you and I fill up with petrol. As he has already emptied the national piggy bank pouring money into state employees' pay packets, he needs that money like a junkie needs heroin. He hasn't the time, or the will, to work out ways of taxing vegetables.

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