- - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Environmental radicals went on a tear last weekend, torching automobiles and laying waste to buildings in the French territory of New Caledonia. They inflicted $30 million in damage to protest nickel mining on the small island in the Southwest Pacific.

The violence ground operations to a halt at the Goro Nickel Plant, where miners want to increase the annual production of the mineral to about 60,000 tons. The very notion of strip mining so infuriates the greenies that they call out pitchforks and torches and put up roadblocks to keep the nickel from making its way to market.

This is a big deal, since about a quarter of the world’s nickel supply comes from New Caledonia, an island about the size of Connecticut. If the environmental activists succeed with their Luddite scheme, the price of nickel — which has been rising since the beginning of the year — will soar into the uncharted heavens. That would be bad news for environmentalists everywhere.

Nickel is the primary ingredient in the nickel-metal hydride batteries that power the Toyota Prius, the most fashionable of automotive accessories among Hollywood celebrities and others among the bean-sprout-and-Prius liberals eager to demonstrate how very, very deeply they care about the planet.

Not all electric cars run on nickel. Fiat-Chrysler uses another metal taken from the earth, lithium, as the prime ingredient for the Fiat 500e electric car. However, Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of Fiat, doesn’t really want his new car to be popular. “I hope you don’t buy it,” he told the Brookings Institution last week, “because every time I sell one, it costs me $14,000. So I’m honest enough to tell you that … I will sell the limit of what I need to sell and not one more.”

Mr. Marchionne says the only reason any version of the Fiat 500 is sold in the United States is because the Obama administration made selling the tiny European car a condition of the 2009 automobile-industry bailout. Based on the lackluster sales of both the gasoline and electric versions, the Italian automaker has a better sense of what Americans want than anyone in the White House.

Fiat has had to resort to bribery to persuade the required quota of customers to pay the premium of being green. “The power of incentives” is the marketing slogan of the Fiat 500e, promising up to $13,000 in government subsidies for buyers of the $32,300 Fiat 500e. That’s a 40 percent discount, courtesy of federal and state taxpayers, but it isn’t enough.

“If we just build those [electric] vehicles,” says Mr. Marchionne, “we’ll be back in … Washington asking for a second bailout, because we’ll be bankrupt by Christmas. We’ve got to run a business.”

Manufacturers have no choice but to build unpopular and money-losing electric cars because “the initiative put in place by Obama back in 2011” and California’s “zero-emission vehicle” rules demand it. Fifteen states have followed California’s lead.

Mr. Marchionne has stern words for the administration about those mandates. “The best thing you can do at [the Department of Energy],” he said, “is to set the target and let industry get there. We’ll find the right mixture of technology to deliver CO2 reductions. We’re much better at this than you are.”

But the violent environmentalists insist that in their piety they know better. Owners of a Prius are warned. They’d better not drive it in New Caledonia.

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