D. Dowd Muska


Potholes in the Road to a Petroleum-Free Future

April 19, 2012

It’s unfair to claim that the recent explosion at a General Motors battery-research lab is a metaphor for the hapless crusade to shift American vehicles to alternative fuels.

But the blast, which injured an employee and caused millions of dollars in damage, does offer evidence of petroleum’s indomitable incumbency. So do several headlines from the last few months:

• Fisker Automotive cut 26 employees in February. USA TODAY reported that the electric-car company, the recipient of a federal loan guarantee, lost access to government cash because it “failed to meet production and sales milestones.” A few weeks before Fisker’s layoffs, battery manufacturer Ener1, another U.S. Department of Energy dependent, filed for bankruptcy.

• In March, GM halted -- temporarily, we are told -- production of the Volt. The Wall Street Journal has characterized the plug-in hybrid as “skidding halfway to Flop City.”

• Research by R.L. Polk & Co. has found that loyalty to hybrids is weak. Auto website TheDetroitBureau.com summarized the firm’s shocking finding: “[N]early two of three … owners wind up returning to a more conventional vehicle when it’s time to trade in.” Earlier this month, in a unlikely admission, The New York Times reported that with two exceptions, “the added cost of [hybrid] technologies is so high that it would take the average driver many years -- in some cases more than a decade -- to save money over comparable new models with conventional internal-combustion engines. That is true at today’s pump prices, around $4, and also if gas were to climb to $5 a gallon.”

• Autos that lack hybrid gizmos, yet still offer impressive fuel economy, continue to materialize in showrooms. Ford tells The Detroit News that in 2013, its Escape SUV will not only “top the competition” in efficiency, but beat last year’s model by “an additional 4-5 mpg.” For sedan-seekers, the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Veloster, and Volkswagen Jetta and Passat (diesel versions) each have highway ratings of at least 40 mpg.

Misguided attempts to reduce -- if not eliminate -- petroleum use in the U.S. transportation sector have been causing trouble for some time. Since the 1970s, “energy security” nonsense from neocons and apocalyptic ravings by eco-fabulists have spurred legislation to address a problem that’s hardly as dire as alarmists assert.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Clinton administration announced the “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles” (PNGV). The White House gushed that the effort, aimed at dramatically boosting mpg rates, was a “challenge comparable to or greater than that involved in the Apollo project.” But with little to show for $1.5 billion in subsidies, Clinton’s successor scrapped the PNGV in 2002.

Letting hope and politics triumph over experience and science, George W. Bush’s energy bureaucrats pursued “Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research,” an laughable blueprint to make fuel cells viable. One guess as to what happened when Barack Obama replaced Bush. Yep, hydrogen was abandoned, and D.C. turned its attention to the latest trendy “game-changer”: electrification.

So far, the Obama administration’s green-car enterprise resembles the foiled schemes launched by his predecessors. But never one to reverse course, the 44th president can be relied on to press ahead, guided by a vision of European enlightenment.

After all, aren’t our neighbors across the Atlantic saving the planet with the automobiles of the future? Not exactly. Over there, the market share for hybrids and all-electrics is in the low single digits, just as it is in the “wasteful” U.S.A. Even in the nation said to have the most politically correct energy consumption in Europe, crude remains king. Last year, Canadian journalist Michael Vaughan visited Iceland, “hoping to find the Green Highway.” What he found came as a disappointment to the Birkenstock-wearers brave enough to read his account: “Traffic jams and gas stations. Big, ugly, gas-guzzling SUVs everywhere and, according to a Reykjavik newspaper, exactly 11 electric cars in the entire country. And what’s the main topic in today’s energy discussions? Oil drilling in Iceland’s fishing grounds.”

If high petroleum prices are here to stay, American motoring will change. Telecommuting options will be offered by more employers. Higher fuel efficiency will be favored by drivers and fleet operators. Clean diesel will enjoy greater acceptance. Sales of natural-gas vehicles, already rising, will surge. (Cheap fuel from the shale boom is sure to help.)

But neither lifestyle-police hectoring nor billions in taxpayer subsidies will establish fuels that cannot be economically justified.

Energy transitions take time -- in some cases, centuries. Forcing “progress” produces technological dead ends and taxpayer ripoffs.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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