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Wednesday, February 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sweden outdoes Bush with goal to go oil free by 2020

The Associated Press

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — President Bush may have surprised international observers by pledging in his State of the Union address to break his country's addiction to foreign oil, but Sweden was one step ahead of him.

The environmentally progressive Scandinavian nation has announced one of its most ambitious goals yet: End its dependency on petroleum — and do it in the next 15 years.

"Our dependency on oil should be broken by 2020," said Mona Sahlin, minister of sustainable development.

The target — announced in September by Prime Minister Goran Persson — has been met with applause from environmental organizations and with great skepticism from some experts who think the target is unrealistic.

Swedish officials acknowledge that getting rid of oil completely in such a short time is close to impossible, but the aim is to ensure that Swedes will never be forced to use fossil fuels because a renewable energy source is not available.

"There shall always be better alternatives to oil, which means no house should need oil for heating, and no driver should need to turn solely to gasoline," Sahlin said.

The plan is a response to global climate change, rising petroleum prices and warnings by some experts that the world may be running out of oil. "We want to be both mentally and technically prepared" for a world without oil, said Martin Larsson, a senior administrative officer in the Ministry of Sustainable Development.

"A lot of people think that in five to six years, a liter of gasoline may cost 20 kronor ($2.50). That would be a dramatic change, and a hard hit to a lot of households." Today, the price is about $1.43 a liter. A liter is equivalent to 0.264 gallon.

Persson has said the target will be reached by boosting research on alternative fuels, giving financial incentives for people switching to "green alternatives" and increasing annual electricity production from renewable sources by 15 terawatt hours by 2016; that figure equals nearly one-third of all electricity used by Swedish industries in 2004. Some tax breaks have been introduced, while Persson has formed a commission charged with finding other ways to create a society independent of oil. The commission will present its first proposals this summer.

"I don't think this is realistic, but it is a good ambition," said Kenneth Werling, chief executive of Agroetanol, which runs Sweden's largest ethanol factory. "Maybe we can build a society that is less dependent on oil, and that is good in itself."

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The country of 9 million people has coastlines stretching hundreds of kilometers, which have given rise to a number of wind-power and water-power plants. A large wind farm being built off Sweden's southern coast is expected to be online by 2009. Sweden also has more forest per capita than any other European Union country, allowing it to burn tons of biomass, which has helped make it one of the world leaders in renewable energy.

In 2003, 26 percent of the energy consumed in Sweden came from renewable sources. Only 32 percent of its energy came from oil, down from 77 percent in 1970, according to Sweden's statistics. About one-third of Sweden's energy is nuclear power, with the rest coming mainly from coal and natural gas.

Today, 8 percent of Swedish houses are heated by oil, said Stefan Edman, an environmental adviser to the government. Only 1 percent of the about 4 million vehicles on Swedish roads run on alternative fuels, but sales of so-called environmental cars that run on alternative fuel have almost doubled in the past year, and Parliament passed a law in December making it mandatory for all major gas stations to offer at least one alternative fuel at the pumps.

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