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A potential ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico led to a spirited debate on U.S. energy policy on ABC News' This Week.
Liberal commentator Bill Maher lamented the fact that both major political parties, including President Barack Obama, have supported offshore oil drilling in recent years instead of being more aggressive about renewable energy.
"Where is the other side on this? I could certainly criticize oil companies and I could criticize America in general for not attacking this problem in the '70s. Brazil got off oil in the last 30 years; we certainly could have," Maher said.
Maher said Obama seems to be backpedaling on offshore drilling since the spill, adding "I hope there's a flip-flop I can believe in there."
Conservative columnist George Will challenged Maher about Brazil. "Could you just explain to me in what sense has Brazil got off oil?"
"I believe they did," Maher said. "I believe in the 70's they had a program to use sugarcane ethanol, and I believe that is what fuels their country."
"I think they still burn a lot of oil and have a lot of offshore (drilling)," Will said.
"Can we have judges factcheck this on Brazil?" Maher said a few moments later. "I don't think I dreamed that on Brazil."
With an invitation like that, how could we resist? So we dug into the research on Brazil and energy.
Brazil does produce a lot of sugarcane ethanol, as Maher said.
"Brazil is one of the largest producers of ethanol in the world and is the largest exporter of the fuel," according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent agency within the U.S. Department of Energy that collects and analyzes energy information.
Additionally, more than half of all cars in Brazil are flexible-fuel capable, which means they can run on 100 percent ethanol or an ethanol-gasoline mixture.
By contrast, the best numbers we found for the United States is that there are approximately 8 million flexible-fuel vehicles, which would translate to roughly 3 percent of all vehicles. (We would caution that even that number might be deceptive, as the U.S. Department of Energy warns that "many FFV owners don't know their vehicle is one.")
But even though Brazil aggressively uses biofuels, and invests quite a bit in hydroelectric power, it still produces and consumes a lot of oil.
In 2008, Brazil ranked No. 7 on the list of the world's countries that consume the most oil, using about 2.5 million barrels per day. In first place was the United States at 19.5 million barrels per day, followed by China, Japan, India, Russia, and Germany, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Brazil also produces a lot of oil through drilling near its coasts. In recent years, Brazil's state-controlled energy company Petrobras announced a major new find of oil in some of the deepest waters where exploration is conducted, some 7,000 feet below in the Atlantic Ocean. The find is expected to make Brazil even more important in the oil export business. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that Brazil will become a net exporter of oil this year, even before the new fields are tapped.
Getting back to our factcheck, Maher was likely remembering Brazil's aggresive efforts to promote ethanol, and certainly Brazil has outpaced the United States in getting flexible fuel vehicles on the road. But Maher said, "Brazil got off oil in the last 30 years." Actually, Brazil still consumes a great deal of oil. It's also embarking on more offshore drilling in some of the deepest waters for exploration. Brazil is hardly "off oil." So we rate Maher's statement False.
Energy Information Administration, Brazil: Oil: Ethanol, accessed May 2, 2010
Energy Information Administration, Total Consumption of Petroleum Products (Thousand Barrels Per Day), 2008
U.S. Department of Energy, Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center, Flexible Fuel Vehicles, accessed May 2, 2010
The Washington Post, Brazil girds for massive offshore oil extraction, Dec. 7, 2009
BBC News, Brazil announces new oil reserves, Nov. 9, 2007
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