Joe Shuster was listening to the president of Shell Oil Co. tell a local business audience two years ago that there will be sufficient oil if only the United States would permit access to fields off the coasts of California, Florida and in the Alaska wilderness.

Shuster, 75, was scratching his head and asking impertinent questions. After the meeting, a Shell lieutenant asked Shuster who he represented.

"I represent my grandchildren," barked Shuster, an energetic guy on a mission. "And this is what I'm doing for the rest of my life."

Shuster is a founder and former CEO of Minnesota Valley Engineering and one-time president of the Minnesota High Tech Association. He is co-founder of several other firms, including RTI, the fast-growing recycler of used cooking oil.

The retired chemical engineer is also the author of a new book, "Beyond Fossil Fools: The Roadmap to Energy Independence by 2040."

It is an informed and quantified look at the fast-eroding, increasingly expensive foreign oil supplies that he says will be tapped out within 40 years at best as demand increases in China, India and other fast-growing economies. Shuster has been interested in energy issues since he wrote a report for Congress in 1973 predicting the Arab oil embargo and rising oil prices.

Bridging the gap

Shuster, a two-fisted fellow who grew up working poor in Chicago public housing in the 1950s, isn't so sure about the global warming theories. Doesn't matter.

Just the national security and financial problems with expensive, imported oil, dirty coal and dwindling supplies of natural gas should inspire the United States to move to new, renewable resources and next-generation nuclear power.

"We need to get this job done in 30 to 35 years," said Shuster. "Conservation buys you time. If we save 25 percent of the fuel that we use in cars now, we're out of oil, maybe, in 40 years instead of 35. We just don't have enough domestic fuels to bridge the gap."

The United States has vast coal resources. But it is the foulest of fuels and converting coal to synthetic fuel is a dirty, energy-intensive process, Shuster said. And industry still hasn't made coal-fired plants clean enough to stop smog, acid rain and mercury pollution that pollutes the ocean and lakes globally.

His proposal boils down to:

• Replacing the bulk of electrical generation from coal and natural gas with a combination of wind, solar and next-generation (fast-neutron) nuclear power.

• Powering cars and trucks increasingly with hybrid-electric and plug-in electric technology.

• Supplementing dwindling oil supplies with biofuels from nonfood sources such as cellulosic ethanol, algae oil, rapeseed and other weedy vegetation.

Shuster's analysis of data assumes projections that the United States is down to about three years' supply of oil, excluding imports, which has left us running a $500 billion annual trade deficit and helped cut the value of the U.S. dollar by 50 percent since 2001. And he assumes that the price of oil will get high enough for the United States to exploit tough-to-get oil shale in Colorado and elsewhere.

The good news: Energy conservation and "green" technology is the fastest-growing industry in the country. And automakers and others are racing to market with energy-saving and alternative-powered vehicles. In sum, investment in these technologies will drive growth of an innovative American economy that imports less expensive oil.

"And the rest of the world will need this [technology] and we'll need to help," Shuster said.

A no-nonsense style

Tim Penny, the common-sense, fiscally prudent 12-year congressman from southern Minnesota who left his First District seat in 1995, said Shuster's book explains why we must move to renewable and affordable energy over the next three decades and "how it is possible to reach the goal. The message is clear and convincing."

Shuster, who says he is financially "comfortable," next month will blanket Washington, state capitols and lots of other places with thousands of books. If he makes a buck, he says he'll donate it to alternative-energy research.

Fred Zimmerman, the retired industrialist and management professor at the University of St. Thomas, said Shuster is one of the most credible, successful executives he has known, including a decade of service as fellow board members at Winnebago Industries.

"Joe has street savvy" Zimmerman said. "He is good technically and was an executive who cared about employees and customers. He distrusts pompous asses, which may have limited the number of boards he has served on."

Shuster, a New Prague resident who also hopes the book will convince his local beer-drinking buddies that it's time for change, is on to something important.

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Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144