LOS ANGELES, Feb. 6 (UPI) — Environmentalists gave President Bush cautious kudos Thursday for his backing of hydrogen fuel cells while at the same time criticizing the administration for moving too slowly in ending the nation’s continuing dependence on oil.
Speaking in Washington on a day dominated by the showdown with Iraq, Bush touted the development of automobiles powered by emissions-free hydrogen fuel cells as a major component of a surge in technological advances that will not only launch a new era in energy independence but also will bring an end to the long-running friction between the energy industry and the environmental movement.
“Hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era,” Bush told his audience. “If you’re interested in our environment and if you’re … tired of the same old endless struggles that seem to produce nothing but noise and high bills, let us promote hydrogen fuel cells as a way to advance into the 21st century.”
Hydrogen fuel cells produce energy that can power automobiles and other mechanical devices and emit only harmless water rather than the collection of noxious gases and particulates blamed for smog and global warming.
Automakers and environmental groups have embraced the hydrogen concept, although the reaction to Thursday’s speech pointed out the schism between the White House and the green lobby.
The primary difference of opinion is the pace of fuel cell development and the prominent place that oil and natural gas will hold in the nation’s near-term energy mix for the next couple of decades.
“We commend President Bush’s proposal for a long-term federal commitment to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and urge him also to advocate immediate steps to reduce the nation’s oil dependence,” Alliance to Save Energy President David M. Nemtzow said in a statement. “While the country awaits the hydrogen-powered cars of 20 or more years from now, the president should be increasing fuel economy standards … and urging Americans to purchase and drive hybrid gas-electric vehicles that are in auto showrooms right now.”
The National Environmental Trust was sharper in its criticism, calling the administration’s backing of the hydrogen-powered “Freedom Car” project a “campaign vehicle” that allows the president to claim to be an environmental champion while at the same time putting real progress on the back burner.
“Research is the political solution when a president is unwilling to take on the auto manufacturers and require that they manufacture more fuel-efficient cars now,” scolded Philip Clapp, the group’s president.
The timeline for the commercialization of the Freedom Car is apparently what concerns environmentalists the most. Bush has proposed pumping $1.2 billion into fuel cell development, but now he and his administration have conceded that the age of hydrogen is still years off.
“It’s a big project because we’ll be changing years of habit, and years of infrastructure must be replaced by a modern way,” Bush said.
In addition, the greens have raised the issue of hydrogen production. Although the gas itself is not a problem, plans for the future see hydrogen being produced from environmental pariahs — coal and nuclear power — and from natural gas, a fossil fuel that presumably will require new exploration and development on protected lands.
“Whether the hydrogen is derived from dirty fossil fuels or clean, renewable energy sources makes all the difference in the world,” concluded Kathleen Sullivan of the World Wildlife Federation. “The administration plan completely misses the environmental promise of hydrogen fuel cells when it seeks to use outdated and polluting coal and nuclear power to generate hydrogen.”
Taking a more contrary view Thursday was the ethanol industry, which predicted that its corn-based, hydrogen-rich gasoline additive could also play a major role in powering fuel cells — and has the added advantage of being a liquid that can be moved through the nation’s existing gasoline pipelines and terminal networks.
“Ethanol combines the ability to utilize the existing fuel distribution infrastructure with the safety and environmentally friendly attributes that consumers are increasingly demanding,” Bob Dineen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, touted in a release. “As a (domestically-produced) fuel, ethanol helps provide energy security. Clearly, fuel cells represent an important new market for renewable ethanol.”
Whether or not ethanol jumpstarts the move to a hydrogen car culture remains to be seen. The president said Thursday that he expected his grandchildren to drive fuel cell cars and look back fondly on the foresight of their grandfather’s generation. The environmental lobby, however, is anxious to get the hydrogen bandwagon moving at a much faster clip.