Bush Hydrogen Initiative Faces Many Obstacles

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 6, 2003 (ENS) - President George W. Bush promoted his hydrogen fuel initiative today as critics continue to blast the plan as a smokescreen for the administration's rejection of environmentally friendly policies. Conservation groups argued that the United States would be better served if the White House supported available technology to boost fuel efficiency and reduce air pollution, rather than depending on an unproven science.

The president called on Congress to rally behind his initiative, which would provide some $1.2 billion to fund hydrogen fuel cell research over the next five years. The money would fund research into the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power automobiles, as well as studies of how to create, store and transport hydrogen fuel.

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President Bush tries out a cell phone powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology during a demonstration of energy technologies at The National Building Museum today. (White House photo by Paul Morse)
"Hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era," Bush said in a speech today at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. "And as I said in my State of the Union, the idea is to see that a child born today will be driving a car, as his or her first car, which will be powered by hydrogen and pollution free."

"It won't be easy to get there because there are obstacles," the president added. "It's important for the American people to know. There are obstacles to overcome. I wouldn't be proposing this initiative if I didn't think we could overcome the obstacles."

But the obstacles are formidable. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is far from a cost effective means to power automobiles, and the challenge of replicating the century old U.S. transportation infrastructure, now centered on the internal combustion engine, is daunting.

"President Bush's new, 'big' idea allows this former Texas oil man to give the auto and oil industries exactly what they want - an opportunity to continue to profit from highly inefficient, polluting cars," said Dr. Brent Blackwelder, president of the conservation group Friends of the Earth. "Any increase in funding for cleaner cars must be viewed as part of a much broader budget context that is terrible news for the environment."

The total of $1.2 billion the president has proposed would add $720 million over the next five years to existing funding for hydrogen research. Critics argue that this falls far short of what would be needed to speed up development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

For example, according to industry analysts, it cost Ford Motor Company some $2 billion to develop the Ford Taurus - a new model of an automobile based on the existing gasoline engine.

The White House estimates that at least 12 more years of research and testing are needed to determine if hydrogen fuel cell technology is commercially viable for automobiles. Mass production is not foreseen until at least 2020.

The president's proposal, said Senator Byron Dorgan, "amounts to little more than small steps toward a very big and important goal."

Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, said he plans to introduce legislation next week calling for an investment of $6.5 billion over 10 years.

Defining Clean Energy

While most groups agree that the environmental promise of hydrogen fuel cells is remarkable, critics argue the president is being disingenuous in his presentation regarding the nascent technology.

Electricity from hydrogen fuel cells is created through a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen that produces clean water vapor as its sole emission. This was a central point in the president's address.

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President Bush looks over a scooter powered by solid hydrogen fuel. (White House photo by Paul Morse)
"Eliminating pollution from cars will obviously make our air healthier," Bush said. "Hydrogen power will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, helping this nation take the lead when it comes to tackling the long term challenges of global climate change."

But environmentalists argue that hydrogen fuel cells are only as clean as the fuels used to produce them, something the president did not discuss.

"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," said Katherine Silverthorne, director of the World Wildlife Fund's U.S. Climate Change Program.

The president's plan provides funds to research how existing energy sources can be used to create hydrogen fuel, including $19.6 million to study the creation of hydrogen from gasoline.

"That's like trying to lose weight by running to McDonald's," said Daniel Becker, director of the global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club. "Hydrogen fuel cells will play a key role in a clean energy future, but the president's plan won't get us there."

Reducing Demand for Oil

Environmental groups and health experts have long argued that the U.S. should work harder to develop vehicles that produce less air pollution and greenhouse gases than traditional, fossil fuel powered cars. Passenger vehicles emit some 20 percent of the U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and the United States is the world's largest consumer of oil, with some 14 million of its daily 20 million gallon demand used for transportation alone.

The president said one of the greatest benefits of hydrogen power will be a reduction in the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

But an easier way to begin reducing this dependence, environmentalists argue, is to increase fuel efficiency standards and develop domestic renewable energy sources.

"Presidents have been making big new technology promises for 30 years, whenever Middle East conflict and high oil imports coincide with upcoming elections," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "None of them reduced U.S. oil consumption by even one gallon, or produced a single useful new technology."

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Department of Energy bus powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
"It will be a decade, maybe two, before we see fuel cell cars on the road," added Dr. Daniel Lashof, science director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "But we have an oil security problem now; we have a global warming problem now; we have an air pollution problem now. We have the technology today to fix these problems, but the White House is standing in the way. America deserves better."

Cost effective fuel saving techniques and design changes are currently available to safely boost fuel economy by five percent a year over at least the next 10 years, according to statistics from the conservation group Environmental Defense. These techniques could cut oil demand by some 3.6 million barrels, and cut greenhouse gas pollution by 100 million metric tons per year, by 2020.

Another hole in the president's proposal is that his initiative does not mandate automakers to build even one hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, argued Kevin Mills, director of Environmental Defense's clean car campaign.

"In 1970, Congress mandated that cars had to be 50 percent cleaner within five years," said Mills. "The government didn't tell car companies how to accomplish this goal, they just said do it. The automotive industry developed the catalytic converter and met the standard in three years."

"New technologies will remain underutilized without policies requiring automakers to improve their products for lower fuel consumption and reduced greenhouse gas pollution," Mills added.

The Bush administration is reluctant to mandate any changes on the automakers. For example, it has consistently opposed legislating large increases to the fuel economy standards for light trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

Light trucks and SUVs consume on average one third more fuel than cars and they are not held to the same fuel efficiency standards. Small businesses are encouraged through tax breaks to purchase large SUVs, tax breaks the administration is currently seeking to increase.

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Fuel cell powered laptop computers allow long term remote use. (Photo courtesy Ballard Power Systems)
Meanwhile, the overall fuel economy of the U.S. automobile fleet is the lowest it has been in two decades.

There is a move within Congress to level the playing field for cars and SUVs. Senators Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, and Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, introduced a bill last week to require SUVs meet the same standards as cars by the year 2011, and also require that vehicles between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds meet fuel economy standards for the first time.

"Simply put," Feinstein said, "this legislation is the single most important step the United States can take to limit dependence on foreign oil and better protect our environment."

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, introduced legislation last week to close tax loopholes for large SUVs. The current tax code allows small businesses to deduct $25,000 of the cost of vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds, and the Bush administration has proposed increasing that deduction to $75,000 - more than the cost of all but the most expensive SUVs.

"By allowing oversized SUVs to get the same deduction as trucks and vans," Boxer said, "the tax code is discouraging the purchase of more fuel efficient vehicles."

Automakers Express Reservations

Automakers commended Bush for his initiative, but are cautious about the obstacles facing the development of automobiles powered by hydrogen fuel cells and the infrastructure needed to support the new vehicles. They contend that the marketplace will decide the future of the internal combustion engine, and which technology ultimately replaces it.

"Consumers must be convinced that the new technologies will deliver the performance, function, safety and utility they desire," said Josephine Cooper, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Honda

A hydrogen powered demonstration car developed by Honda. (Photo courtesy Michelin Bibendum Challenge)
Hydrogen research and development by U.S. automakers lags far behind Japanese rivals Toyota and Honda, both of whom have unveiled working hydrogen fuel cell prototypes. Both companies have leased a few of their new models to the Japanese government, and to the University of California and the city of Los Angeles.

California has been the U.S. leader in tackling pollution from automobiles, and has called for all cars sold in the state to have near zero emissions by 2009.

Both Japanese companies plan to lease more vehicles, but neither currently has plans for mass market sales of fuel cell vehicles.