Clean Cities 2002 Review
By Bill Moore
The theme of this year's Clean Cities conference in Oklahoma City was "Kick It Up a Notch." There's no question in my mind that's exactly what they did with a host of top-drawer speakers, panel debates and breakout sessions.
Yet looming over the conference, like the ghosts of the victims of Timothy McVeigh's murderous truck bomb, is the palpable sense that we're in a desperate race against time, one we may be losing through indifference, complacency and procrastination.
|The Clean Cities program began in the mid-1990s after George H.W. Bush signed the 1992 Energy Policy Act, now known as EPACT. The concept behind Clean Cities was to establish a grassroots initiative to promote the use of alternative fuels, as part of a strategy to reduce US dependence on imported oil.||
Electric vehicles play a minor role in this effort with natural gas, propane and biodiesel the main actors in this drama.
Sponsored by the US Department of Energy, Clean Cities uses local-based coalitions, lead by local part-time coordinators, to encourage both public and private fleets to purchase alternative fuel vehicles and establish the necessary support infrastructure. These fleets include transit buses, delivery trucks, school buses and car pools. Program director Shelley Launey estimated that Clean Cities has been responsible for placing some 115,000 alt fuel vehicles in the 70 some cities and regions participating in the voluntary program, which now also includes several cross-border initiatives in Canada and Mexico, as well as international partnerships.
But 115,000 vehicles fueled by natural gas, propane and biodiesel are a drop in the bucket compared to the nation's multi-million vehicle fleet which consumes virtually all the oil imported into the United States every year.
And even this modest encroachment hasn't been without its slips and falls as early technology failed to live up to its expectations. EV World heard more than once stories of fleets that simply gave up on their alternative fuel vehicles, including electric pickup trucks that just never seem to work right; and natural gas and propane conversions that were disasters in terms of performance and emissions.
Complicating the whole issue is simple human nature with its distrust of anything new and different, not to mention added vehicle cost and the inconvenience of finding alternative fuels on which to run them.
In the year since the last Clean Cities conference convened, the whole subject of energy, oil and terrorism has thrust the question of alternative fuels on to an entirely new plateau, a fact made abundantly clear by the sobering opening speech given by James Woolsey, the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency. EV World recorded much of the conference, including Woolsey's address, which we'll be webcasting through the remainder of May and June.
Woolsey said that of the 4 million oil wells drilled around the world, 3 million of them are located in the US, implying that there is little chance the nation will find enough new domestic crude oil to reduce its dependence on imported oil from regions he characterized as being ruled by "pathological predators and vulnerable autocracies."
In his view, this poses an unacceptable risk to the nation, one that must be addressed vigorously with courage and resolve, but which at present, isn't.
His sentiments were echoed by others during the course of the conference, often evoking unsolicited and enthusiastic applause from an audience clearly concerned about the fate of the nation and the world, both our collective prosperity, peace and environment.
One can't attend a conference in Oklahoma City without spending some time at the National Memorial to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, just a few short blocks from the conference center.
I walked up to the memorial the second day of the conference, just about the time the Ryder truck bomb took the lives of 168 innocent men, women and children over 7 years ago, while leaving a scar in the physique of thousands of Oklahomans, if not millions of others. I'll write more on my visit in a future issue of EV World, but suffice it to say, I was moved and troubled by what I saw, for despite the execution of confessed bomber Timothy McVeigh last year, many still harbor doubts about the government's version of this horrible tragedy.
The bombing of the Murrah federal building in 1995, was only the precursor to the terrible events of September 11, 2001 with the destruction of the World Trade Center and attack on the Pentagon.
I asked Jim Snider with Daimler Chrysler's alternative fuel vehicle program whether or not 9/11 had impacted his business. He looked at me and nodded his head sadly. "Yes, it hurt," he said. He explained that he had worked for months with officials at Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta to place alternative fuel vehicles in their fleet only to have the events of 9/11 scuttle the entire effort overnight. Now Atlanta has to spend what available funds it has on tightened security measures instead of cleaning up its polluted air.
I suspect that this same story could be repeated by other Clean Cities coordinators and alt. fuel industry representatives. But it appears that most not only remain committed to the alternative fuel effort but now sense that world events have vindicated them.
Tom Gross, who is the deputy directory of the Office of Transportation Technology at the Department of Energy, reminded everyone that he had once warned about the "gathering storm clouds". Somewhere on EV World there is an audio copy of his original speech back in the summer of 1998 in Detroit. He asked the audience in Oklahoma if those same clouds had not now grown darker and more ominous. Clearly they have.
So, when Richard Kolodziej stood up after the end of the "Great Diesel Debate" he had just participated in and asked for a minute to talk to the conference, everyone stopped to listen. Kolodziej, who is the director of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, said what none of employees of Clean Cities could say. He explained to the audience that the White House was proposing to cut the Clean Cities program budget by $11 million, which he views as a terrible mistake. He said the budget needed to be $30 million and he urged audience to write their representatives in Congress and ask them to support increasing Clean Cities budget, now more than ever.
EV World couldn't agree more. Here is a program in the best spirit of volunteerism by both private and public groups that risks being gutted in the wake of events its administrators, employees and volunteers have tried mightily to mitigate for nearly the last decade.
Yet, through the gloom of gathering clouds poked rays of sunshine. Segway inventor Dean Kaman led 2,000 elementary school children into the large conference room and talked about his inventions, the ScienceFest he founded, and the role of innovation and the need to give children role models beyond sports stars and rock musicians. His Segway brought a smile to face of everyone who rode it, including this writer.
Then there was the incomparable cowboy poet Baxter Black with his homespun humor and penetrating insights. I don't think he'll mind if I let you listen in on a bit of his presentation in the coming weeks.
Of course, there were the prerequisite receptions and parties, capped off with a casino night in Oklahoma City's wonderfully restored Bricktown, complete with a nearly mile long canal system on which ply a small fleet of propane-fueled Water Taxis.
Oklahoma City has done much to try and repair its image since the bombing in 1995 and the cancellation of air service into the city by American Airlines. Mayor Kirk Humphreys said this latter event came as an economic "wake up call" for the city, which has now invested some $300 million dollars in various urban renewal projects like Bricktown.
Yet, I fear the ghosts of the Murrah Building tragedy will continue to haunt this remarkable city for at least a generation to come. I learned that Sandy Stephens, the feisty director of the Electric Vehicle Training Center, the only one of its kind in the nation that is CASE certified, lost a good friend in the bombing, leaving an emotional scar that will never heal.
But scars can be good things, for they remind us of the mistakes we've made and the history we've lived. Maybe the scars of April 19, 1995 and September 11, 2001 will remind those of us who attended Clean Cities 2002, that our efforts are not in vain. Though we've make mistakes, we can learn from them and grow.
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