- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

In proposing substantial new subsidies to develop nonpolluting hydrogen-based fuel cells, the Bush administration holds out a vision of the future that environmentalists should love. But it's far from clear that the new program unveiled this week by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham at the Detroit's annual auto show will get a Green thumbs up.

For one thing, it's a Republican idea, which makes it automatically suspect in left-wing eyes. Too, it replaces former Vice President Al Gore's pet program, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a $1.5-billion, eight-year joint effort to develop 80-mile-per-gallon cars. By contrast, George Bush's Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research project, or Freedom CAR, may not see results for 10 years or more if then.

But there is an even more fundamental reason the environmental left is likely to hate Freedom CAR: If this program lives up to its promise of delivering a cheap, clean, limitless source of energy admittedly a very big “if,” as more knowledgeable sources than I would doubtless tell you it would power the world to new levels of wealth and prosperity. And wealth and prosperity is what many ardent modern-day environmentalists hate most of all.

After all, there is a deep Marxist streak in the Green movement. In their eyes, the acquisitive process leads to inequalities that are by definition unfair. Such inequalities are also evidence of, as Al Gore put it, “a dysfunctional civilization” that can't seem to resist the temptation to soil its own nest. Greens seek a return to some idyllic time when humans supposedly lived in perfect harmony with each other and Mother Nature and walked to market.

A post-petroleum era of even cheaper energy would pose a severe challenge to this vision of a down-scaled human presence on the Earth. The Greens dare not oppose the Bush initiative on these grounds, of course. To do so would be to lay bare their hostility to the hopes and dreams of ordinary people the world over.

Nor are Greens and their allies in the bureaucracy likely to take the principled position of opposing government subsidies to the fuel-cell industry. They will try to argue instead that fuel-cell technology is too far off to be of use in staving off global warming and other horrors of the industrial age. Never mind that everybody but California has already given up on the idea of producing an electric car or that the hybrids are mostly limited to small sedans.

But just as Ronald Reagan changed the terms of the defense debate with his Strategic Defense Initiative, so the fuel-cell initiative of George Bush and Spencer Abraham may change the terms of debate over energy.

Back in 1983, remember, a powerful peace movement was counseling the West to reach accommodation with the Soviet Union rather than risk nuclear war. But SDI transformed the debate by pointing out that missile defenses would make it unnecessary to consider freedom a suicide pact. That didn't persuade the skeptics, but it appears to have helped to persuade the Soviets that they couldn't hope to compete with Western technology. They abandoned their quest to dominate the world a few years later.

Likewise, Mr. Bush and Mr. Abraham are seeking to leapfrog the arguments of those who say that energy supplies are both running out and/or leading to global climate catastrophe. Fuel cells whose only pollutant is a few drops of water would transform that decades-old debate. Technology becomes the friend rather than the enemy. And to the Green vision of noble poverty (for others, anyway) is opposed a Bush vision of continued prosperity and freedom for all.

The argument that fuel-cell technology, which already is advancing rapidly, should be left to the private sector is a good one. Republican subsidy schemes aren't necessarily any better than Democratic ones and could easily lead to new, even more unworkable mandates on the auto and power industries. But politically it's hard to see how Mr. Bush loses this debate. Freedom CAR calls the Green bluff on a less polluting, more prosperous world.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist and is nationally syndicated.

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