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Quote: SAO PAULO, Brazil -- While Americans fume at high gasoline prices, Carolina Rossini is the essence of Brazilian cool at the pump.
Like tens of thousands of her countrymen, she is running her zippy red Fiat on pure ethanol extracted from Brazilian sugar cane. On a recent morning in Brazil's largest city, the clear liquid was selling for less than half the price of gasoline, a sweet deal for the 26-year-old lawyer.
"You save money and you don't pollute as much," said Rossini, who paid about $18 to fill her nearly empty tank. "And it's a good thing that the product is made here." advertisement
Three decades after the first oil shock rocked its economy, Brazil has nearly shaken its dependence on foreign oil. More vulnerable than even the United States when the 1973 Middle East oil embargo sent gas prices spiraling soaring, Brazil vowed to kick its import habit. Now the country that once relied on outsiders to supply 80 percent of its crude is projected to be self-sufficient within a few years.
Developing its own oil reserves was crucial to Brazil's long-term strategy. Its domestic petroleum production has increased sevenfold since 1980. But the Western Hemisphere's second-largest economy also has embraced renewable energy with a vengeance.
Today about 40 percent of all the fuel that Brazilians pump into their vehicles is ethanol, known here as alcohol, compared with about 3 percent in the United States. No other nation is using ethanol on such a vast scale. The change wasn't easy or cheap. But 30 years later, Brazil is reaping the return on its investment in energy security while the United States writes checks for $50-a-barrel foreign oil.
"Brazil showed it can be done, but it takes commitment and leadership," said Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. In the United States, "We're paying the highest prices at the pump since 1981, and we are sending over $100 billion overseas a year to import oil instead of keeping that money in the United States. ... Clearly Brazil has something to teach us."
Much of Brazil's ethanol usage stems from a government mandate requiring all gasoline to contain 25 percent alcohol. Vehicles that ran solely on ethanol fell out of favor here in the 1990s because of an alcohol shortage that pushed drivers back to gas-powered cars. But thanks to a new generation of vehicles that can run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of those two fuels, more motorists such as Rossini are filling up with 100 percent alcohol again to beat high gas prices.
The exploding popularity of these "flex-fuel" vehicles is reverberating across Brazil's farming sector. Private investors are channeling billions of dollars into sugar and alcohol production, creating much-needed jobs in the countryside. Environmentalists support the expansion of this clean, renewable fuel that has helped improve air quality in Brazil's cities. Consumers are tickled to have a choice at the filling station.
Officials from other nations are flocking to Brazil to examine its methods. Most will find Brazil's sugar-fuel strategy impossible to replicate. Few countries possess the acreage and climate needed to produce sugar cane in gargantuan quantities, much less the infrastructure to get it to the pump.
Still, some Brazilians say that their government's commitment to ditching imports and to jump-starting homegrown energy industries were the real keys to Brazil's success.
"It's a combination of strong public policy and the free market," said Mauricio Tolmasquim, president of a federal energy research agency based in Rio de Janiero. "That's the Brazilian secret."
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