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Embrace Hydrogen and Reduce Oil Dependence—Now

The administration’s forward-thinking leadership on hydrogen cannot be a substitute for reducing our oil dependence and transportation pollution today. We can do both.

The situation with Iraq is a stark reminder of our dependence. Part of the reason the U.S. government is concerned about Saddam Hussein is that no one wants him to have undue influence over the oil supplies of his neighbors.

Our transportation choices are the major cause of our oil dependence. In his State of the Union address, President Bush pointed to hydrogen as a possible solution for the long term, but he offered nothing to reduce our dependence and pollution over the next decade.

According to the Department of Energy (DOE), two-thirds of the 20 million barrels of oil Americans use each day is used for transportation. Half of the oil we use is imported—the highest level in U.S. history. This dependence is projected to grow to 64 percent by 2020.
Up to 75 percent of the world’s oil reserves are in the Middle East and controlled by members of the OPEC oil cartel. Oil price spikes from 1979 to 1991 cost the U.S. economy about $4 trillion, and the economy went into a recession after each major price shock. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United States spends $20-40 billion a year to defend Middle Eastern oil resources. This amount could go up significantly if we invade Iraq.

Oil fuels our transportation economy, but it does so at a significant cost in human health and global warming impacts. Thus, for reasons related to peace, justice and creation-care, reducing our oil dependence is an ethical issue and demands bold leadership.

President Bush’s proposal announced in his State of the Union address to increase hydrogen fuel cell research is a needed show of leadership in the area of transportation. Unfortunately, the administration’s current proposal on raising fuel economy standards and its defense of tax credits for large SUVs isn’t. Let’s look at the good news first.

The new five-year initiative announced in the State of the Union is called FreedomFUEL. It will be combined with a current program called FreedomCAR. President Bush proposes $1.7 billion in funding for both over the next five years, with $720 million of new money.

The DOE estimates that these initiatives could reduce our oil dependence by over 11 million barrels per day—the amount we currently import. We will have to wait and see whether the administration will fight to ensure that the necessary funding levels will be achieved each year in order to reach this goal.

What’s the big deal about hydrogen? It has the highest energy content per unit of weight of any known fuel. When powering a fuel cell, its only waste is pure water. Fuel cells have actually been around since the 19th century. They produce electricity through a chemical process in which a hydrogen atom is forced through a specially designed membrane that peels off one of its electrons to create the electricity that drives the motor.

So what’s the problem? Hydrogen is found rarely on its own in nature. It has to be produced by using another fuel source. If that source is solar or wind, you essentially have emissions-free energy. If you use gasoline, natural gas or some other fossil fuel, you will still have some pollution—but less, given that fuel cells are 2-3 times more efficient than today’s internal combustion engines.

The administration’s FreedomCAR program is a partnership with the big three automakers (GM, Ford, DaimlerCrysler) to advance high-technology research needed to produce practical, affordable hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that American consumers will want to buy and drive.

The new FreedomFUEL proposal would develop technologies for hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure needed to power fuel cell vehicles. Currently, hydrogen (when produced from its most affordable source, natural gas) is four times as expensive to produce as gasoline. FreedomFUEL seeks to lower that cost enough to make fuel cell cars cost-competitive with conventional gasoline-powered vehicles by 2010.
Sounds pretty good—if it happens.

Even stronger leadership comes from Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

“We need a new, bold initiative—in the spirit of the Apollo moon-landing project—this time focused on breaking our country’s dependence on Middle East Oil,” Dorgan said. “We need to make the commitment to do this and then focus the resources to get the job done. Moving to a hydrogen based future for transportation will be good for our economy, our energy future, and our environment.” His plan would invest $6.5 billion over 10 years.

Now for the bad news. The earliest FCVs will become available to the average consumer is about a decade away. What is our country to do in the meantime to reduce both oil dependence and transportation pollution? Not much, if the administration has its way.

Over the next 10-15 years fuel economy standards for all vehicles need to be raised, especially for SUVs. The administration’s current proposal is for SUVs and light trucks to have their fuel economy increased by half a gallon a year for three years for a 1.5-mpg increase.

The administration has not made its final decision, but will do so soon. Fuel economy for SUVs and light trucks should be raised half a mile per year for 15 years, not just three. This 7.5-mpg increase would be significant. It would be a sign of strong leadership.

What about tax deductions for the largest SUVs—those weighing 6,000 pounds or more? Back in the 1980s when such deductions began, it might have made some sense. They were intended for trucks needed by farmers and on worksites. The mammoth SUVs were not yet in existence.

Now such vehicles as the Hummer, Lincoln Navigator and Toyota Land Cruiser can claim the deduction. But that’s not all. According to the New York Times, the administration’s economic plan would increase these deductions by 50 percent or more.

A Hummer with a base sticker price of over $100,000 would be eligible for more than $87,000 in deductions for about $33,500 in savings. So taxpayers are subsidizing Hummer drivers and increasing oil dependence, air pollution and global warming in one fell swoop.

That our government would provide incentives for such large SUVs in our current situation is bad enough. But to double them? When questioned about this, the administration’s spokesman was unabashed—the deduction would be a potent economic stimulant.

Government policy should not encourage the purchase of such vehicles; it should discourage them by adding a gas-guzzler fee that is then given as a rebate to those who purchase fuel-efficient vehicles (called a “feebate”).

The administration’s forward-thinking leadership on hydrogen cannot be a substitute for reducing our oil dependence and transportation pollution today. We can do both.

Jim Ball is executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and publisher of Creation Care magazine.