- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2012

There’s no idea so crazy that you can’t find a government grant to implement it. After all, California voters approved a project to build what’s now a $70 billion bullet train between Bakersfield and Madera — two unremarkable cities situated in the middle of nowhere. Now Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown wants to ensure even more cash is flushed down another pie-in-the-sky transportation project known as the Hydrogen Highway. Such pricey ventures are why the once Golden State has lost its luster.

To pander to self-styled environmentalists, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 endorsed the idea of creating a network of hydrogen fuel stations that would run along the length of the state. Once these stations were operational, consumers were supposed to flock to the showrooms to buy brand new, zero-emissions hydrogen vehicles. A grant program was established in 2007 to bankroll the expensive infrastructure investment. Not surprisingly, the plan has so far been a total flop — except for the handful who have profited from it.

More than $37.7 million in taxpayer funds have flowed into the scheme, resulting in the construction of just 10 hydrogen stations. As of 2011, the California Energy Commission counted just 250 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCV) on the road, meaning the infrastructure subsidy has thus far amounted to $148,000 per owner. It’s not clear how many more members of the public are going to be willing to fork over the $100,000 sticker price currently adorning the utilitarian transportation modules powered by this fashionable fuel.

In May, the Energy Commission canceled $27 million worth of Hydrogen Highway grants after a columnist for the Santa Monica Mirror pointed out the process of approving them appeared rigged, with just two companies landing the majority of the sweetheart deals.

That hardly means the Hydrogen Highway boondoggle is dead. Bureaucrats at the California Air Resources Board — the state equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency — took up the cause earlier this year by coming up with a plan to pass off the exorbitant costs to oil companies.

The agency decreed car manufacturers must manufacture 1.4 million sufficiently pious vehicles — that is, units that run on electricity or hydrogen. For each 10,000 hydrogen vehicles these firms promise to make as part of this quota, oil companies need to build 20 stations at a cost of up to $2.5 million each. The mandate ends when there are 50 such stations, representing a total capital expenditure of $125 million. The losses mount ever higher when the cost of actually supplying fuel to and operating such stations is added in. Industry sources suggest the full price tag could be between $500 million and $1 billion.

Forcing companies to build an infrastructure that competes with their own product is an un-American concept. It would be like forcing the owners of hot dog stands to pay to build salad bars or, worse, forcing airlines to pay for high-speed rail tracks. Let’s hope Gov. Brown never comes up with that idea.

The Washington Times

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