- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

The old chestnut of energy independence dies hard. Even President Bush gave it another whirl in his State of the Union message, pledging $1.2 billion of taxpayer money for research on infrastructure for hydrogen-powered vehicles. He argued that such cars would be far cleaner the only residue being a dribble of drinkable water as well as reduce oil imports.
Backward reels the mind to 1993, when President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore also citing energy independence and a cleaner environment announced almost exactly the same sum for research into electric-powered vehicles. After a decade of trying, both the auto companies and the government threw in the towel last year. Nobody seemed terribly interested in tiny cars that could barely get to the corner store and back before they had to be plugged into the wall.
Maybe hydrogen fuel cells will work better. And considering that motor vehicles use 60 percent of the oil consumed in the United States, they would certainly reduce dependence on petroleum whether foreign or domestic. But one reluctantly suspects that the Sierra Club's Dan Becker is on to something when he complains, "The auto industry is using the promise of future fuel cells as a shield against using existing technology to cut our oil dependence, and pollution, today."
Moreover, if the administration and the auto industry think they are likely to get much credit even from fuel cell enthusiasts, they are mistaken. If fuel cells can wean America from dependence on foreign oil and clean up the environment, after all, why spend only a billion or two on them? Why not launch a new Manhattan Project? Indeed, environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The Hydrogen Economy," blasted the president for "a paltry gesture." What's needed, he says, is "a government-private partnership on a grand scale," costing tens of billions.
The administration would have been better served by tackling the faulty assumptions behind the Sierra Club's thinking. The most important is that efficiency measures will reduce oil use. As it happens, encourage use of diesel fuel would drive up vehicle efficiency dramatically. A third of the European car fleet now uses diesel technology, but environmentalists, hearkening back to the days when diesels were smelly and dirty, remain unalterably opposed.
But as economists know, efficiency has a "rebound effect." American cars get nearly twice the mileage they used to, but as a result Americans can afford to drive nearly twice as far. Dependence on foreign oil has gone up, not down, since the inauguration of corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in 1978. Mr. Bush should be calling for repealing this dumb program, not taking the path of least resistance by urging spending on fuel cells.
Another assumption is that less oil use would mean less pollution. But air pollution has been declining steadily. As nations grow wealthier thanks in large measure to the intensive use of energy that liberals love to hate they also grow cleaner. They can afford to install costly pollution control equipment on smokestacks and tailpipes. North Korea doesn't use much energy, but it's hardly an environmental paragon.
Aha, say the Greens, how about global warming? Isn't oil use responsible for a potentially catastrophic buildup of greenhouse gases?
But global warming is still in the theory stage. Environmentalists claim enough is known to invoke the "precautionary principle," the notion that precautionary measures should be taken even in the absence of clear evidence about a potential harm. But this could soak up scarce resources tackling what might turn out to be a phantom problem. A far better strategy would be to continue increasing mankind's wealth and knowledge, so society has the resilience and capacity to respond to threats if and when they actually materialize.
A hydrogen economy sounds like a fine thing if it actually works as advertised. And Mr. Bush's fuel cell initiative may not be the worst energy independence boondoggle ever dreamed up. But it is nonetheless a dubious use of government's research dollars. Auto companies already are spending substantial sums investigating the possibilities of fuel cells. DaimlerChrysler alone is spending $1.5 billion on the idea.
Auto executives may seem dim to the terribly bright folks at the Sierra Club, but they are perfectly aware that the first to turn this known technology into an affordable, reliable and yes, attractive vehicle will reap huge profits, as Henry Ford did with the Model T. But they are also aware of the bottom-line consequences of mistaken judgments, unlike politicians spending other people's money.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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