- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

FRANKFURT — Here’s a choice for you: A Volvo sold in America has a gasoline engine that gets about 12 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and maybe 21 mpg on the highway — at American highway speeds of, give or take, 65 miles per hour (mph). A Volvo sold in Europe has a turbo-diesel engine that gets well more than 30 mpg, when driven at German highway speeds of, give or take, 100 mph. And the diesel is one heck of a lot of fun to drive. The American version has all the excitement of being at the wheel of a queen-size sleep-sofa.

Then consider that diesel engines have many fewer moving parts, require much less maintenance, and last a whole lot longer. Gasoline engines do well to last 150,000 miles. It is not all that unusual for a diesel engine to last 1 million miles. If you get into a Mercedes taxi in Frankfurt, or Brussels, or wherever, look at the odometer. The taxi may still have a “new-car smell” with 500,000 miles on it. And, finally, note that throughout much of Europe, diesel fuel costs a lot less than gasoline. That is partly because you get more diesel fuel than gasoline out of a barrel of oil and partly because taxes on diesel are substantially lower. European governments want to promote diesel cars — because they reduce the need for imported oil.

No wonder it’s hard to find new cars with gasoline engines in Europe. Who would want one? But in the U.S., if you want the advantages of a diesel-engine car, you now have the choice of one model of Mercedes, starting at around $52,000, and three models of Volkswagen. That’s it. Not one American company, not one Japanese company, not one Korean company, not one Swedish company has a diesel-powered car on the American market. Honda has announced it will market a new diesel car in the U.S., but that is maybe a year or more away.

In addition, it can be hard to find diesel fuel in gas stations, and in many places, when you do, you have to pay more for diesel fuel than for regular gasoline, sometimes even more than for premium gasoline. (The U.S. has set up a regulatory schedule for diesel sulfur content to be lowered between this year and 2010.)

Why can’t we get modern diesel engines in cars sold in the U.S.? Why do we pay so much for diesel fuel when it’s cheaper to produce and you get more of it from a barrel of crude oil?

Part of the answer is the market: The last time anybody tried to sell diesel cars to Americans — during the first “energy crisis” in the early 1970s, they were dirty and smelly, and they made ugly “pocketa-pocketa” lawnmower-type sounds. And they had the acceleration of a bus. No more. Now they have no smell at all, growl sexily and provide terrific acceleration.

Because diesel cars didn’t sell, almost all the diesel engines in the U.S. are in trucks and buses. That is part of the problem, because we all see black smoke pouring out of trucks and buses, and it stinks, and it’s polluting.

So many Americans think that’s the way diesel engines have to be. But it just isn’t so. To at least some extent, that is the fault of the Reagan administration, which wanted to do truckers (and the Teamsters Union) a favor by easing pollution control standards on trucks.

Diesel engines do have somewhat different pollution control problems than do gasoline engines, but the European Union has tough rules that the new turbo-diesel engines meet, and Honda says its new diesel can comply with California’s clean air standards, which may be the toughest in the world. And why is diesel fuel sold in America more polluting than the diesel fuel sold in Europe? We are about to catch up on that, because new federal standards will require the oil companies to reduce the sulfur content of diesel fuel over the next four years, but why can’t they do it faster, if they are already selling cleaner fuel in Europe?

And, of course, diesel engines can run on “biodiesel,” which means we can replace oil imported from our friends in the Middle East, or Nigeria or Venezuela with, among other things, used grease from the french-fryer at your local McDonalds. Not only is biodiesel a great way to recycle cooking oil and use soy and other crops to produce energy, but it is a much cleaner to burn than diesel from petroleum.

Diesel could be the kind of government program that really works for everyone. Even if I’m stuck with a gasoline-engine car until it wears out in a few more years, it would help me if there were more diesel cars on the roads, because it would reduce the demand for gasoline, which should lower the price a bit.

This really looks like a win-win proposition, unless, of course, you are one of those friendly oil exporters. Why can’t we jump start a pro-diesel campaign? The cars are already on the market. Many are made by subsidiaries of U.S. automakers — like Volvo. There must be ways the Energy Department and EPA can work with the oil companies to increase the supply of diesel fuel

This is something that can happen quickly, as opposed to all of those great ideas, like hydrogen, which may be a significant factor when our children’s children have to worry about these things.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.

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