`Freedom car' takes our eyes off gas guzzlers

February 13, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - The other night there was a perfect clash of cultures at an intersection in Volant, Pa. An SUV collided with a horse-drawn Amish buggy. The score was SUV 1, Horse 0.

The clash was no surprise to those of us who have more horsepower than our Amish brethren but less than a Hummer. SUVs have, after all, become the target of choice for those who have finally connected the dots between the cars we drive, the wars we fight and the globe we warm.

In the past months, SUVs have been ticketed, picketed and spray-painted. A poster at an antiwar rally in San Francisco read, "Draft SUV drivers first." The Detroit Project has run TV ads equating drivers to drug dealers. And the more spiritual among us have posed questions - What Would Jesus Drive? - suggesting the Expedition is a sacrilege.

On this highway of opinion, you would assume that when the president announced a $1.2 billion program to develop a hydrogen car, aka the "freedom car," the anti-SUV crowd would be on its feet waving the flag. But in the days since the State of the Union address, many environmentalists have been waving warning flags instead.

Even Jeremy Rifkin, author of a new book promoting The Hydrogen Economy as the one true path to peace, justice, joy and equality, has protested. Indeed, he labels the program "a Trojan horse."

Trojan horse? Horse and buggy? So would Jesus drive the "freedom car" or wouldn't he?

"Ah," said Mr. Rifkin, oozing skepticism. When the Fossil Fuel White House proposes a hydrogen car, he says, "you knew there had to be a catch." It turns out that the Bush plan should be labeled Catch Me If You Can.

Catch One is the little bitty taxpayer catch. This program gives its money to automakers without any requirement that they actually make a hydrogen car. This is a reprise of the Clinton fiasco that plied the Big Three with money to produce a hybrid that would get up to 70 mpg. We did get the first hybrids - from the Japanese.

Catch Two is bait and switch. The administration wants to keep our eyes on the prize of a hydrogen car by 2020. And keep our eyes off the present.

We have the technology now to produce vehicles that go 40 miles per gallon, saving 3 million gallons of oil a day. But the "freedom car" salesmen have fought against raising fuel efficiency standards and done little to support hybrids. The administration is actually suing California to derail clean car legislation. And they want to broaden the tax deduction for small businesses that purchase the biggest, fattest SUVs that ever knocked over a horse and buggy.

Then there is Catch-22. Excuse me, Catch Three, which could trap the energy future in the past. The promise of this new energy technology is that hydrogen is everywhere. But it has to be extracted from either fossil fuels or water.

In short, you need energy to get the energy. The question for the future is whether we'll use renewable sources like wind and sun, or fossil fuels like coal. Or would they use nuclear power to extract the hydrogen?

The good news is that this most environmentally hostile, oil-friendly president brought the concept of hydrogen cars to the public consciousness.

The bad news, as Mr. Rifkin sees it, is that the White House may be "using hydrogen to mask an old-fashioned fossil fuel agenda."

Any serious energy plan has to run on two tracks, one using available technology to improve efficiency now, the other planning for the future. For the moment, however, we have another culture clash. So far it looks like Trojan Horse 1, Freedom Car 1.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.