Electric Cars, Hubbert's Peak and the State of the Union
Feb 01, 2006
Last week during the Plug-in Partners press conference, national security hawk Frank Gaffney, along with former-CIA chief Jim Woolsey and arch-conservative Senator Orin Hatch, called on the President to include flexible fuel and plug-in hybrids in his forthcoming State of the Union address to Congress, delivered last night.
And he did. Now that's what I call clout. Here are the relevant sections of Bush's address as expanded upon by today's official White House press release.
In addition, the president's 2007 budget includes $289 million for hydrogen fuel cell research. The statement also noted that the cost of a hydrogen fuel cell has been cut by more than 50% in just four years.
We Are On The Verge Of Dramatic Improvements In How We Power Our Automobiles, And The President's Initiative Will Bring Those Improvements To The Forefront. The United States must move beyond a petroleum-based economy and develop new ways to power automobiles. The President wants to accelerate the development of domestic, renewable alternatives to gasoline and diesel fuels. The Administration will accelerate research in cutting-edge methods of producing "cellulosic ethanol" with the goal of making the use of such ethanol practical and competitive within 6 years. The Administration will also step up the Nation's research in better batteries for use in hybrid and electric cars and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen.
Developing More Efficient Vehicles. Current hybrids on the road run on a battery developed at the DOE. The President's plan would accelerate research in the next generation of battery technology for hybrid vehicles and "plug-in hybrids." Current hybrids can only use the gasoline engine to charge the on-board battery. A "plug-in" hybrid can run either on electricity or on gasoline and can be plugged into the wall at night to recharge its batteries. These vehicles will enable drivers to meet most of their urban commuting needs with virtually no gasoline use. Advanced battery technologies offer the potential to significantly reduce oil consumption in the near-term. The 2007 Budget includes $30 million – a $6.7 million increase over FY06 – to speed up the development of this battery technology and extend the range of these vehicles.
Obviously, all of us who have been pushing for the adaptation of flexible fuel, plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles are pleased to see these programs included in the State of the Union. For my part, I have to eat a little crow here, because I wrote in my Insider newsletter earlier this week that I doubted the White House would include any references to plug-in hybrids. Never in my wildest dreams would I expect to also hear the words "electric cars".
Here's what I wrote:
Interestingly, it was Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy, who during the Plug-In Partners press conference called on the President to make development of flexible-fuel, plug-in hybrids a part of his State of the Union address tonight (Tuesday, January 31, 2006). However, given the White House's endorsement of hydrogen fuel cell technology and its "admit no errors" policy, it's highly doubtful this suggestion will be taken seriously. But as Edward Furia points out in our interview, the pressure is mounting politically and in the media from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times to The Economist for increased government and industry focus on this initiative.
Even more surprising -- which suggests to me that the White House is really worried about peak oil -- is Mr. Bush's reference to the "A" word, as in "addicted to oil".
He said, "Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology."
All the day-after news pundits have commented on how strange it is to hear this coming from a man with such long and deep ties to the oil and gas industry. Wasn't it Ken Lay -- ironically now on trial in Houston for corporate fraud -- who is said to have financially come to the rescue of the Bush campaign early in the 2000 primaries, as well as providing him with use of Enron's corporate jet?
By promoting biofuels and encouraging development of efficient, electric-drive vehicles -- plug-in and battery electric -- the president hopes to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil by 75% by 2025.
Though that sounds impressive, it's hardly a stretch goal. In fact, as Anne Korin at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security -- and a strong advocate of flexible fuel plug-in hybrids -- noted today that represents only a very modest 3.75 million barrels a day (mbd) by 2025 out of the estimated 20 mbd the U.S is forecast to import in that same timeframe. And a more careful parsing of the president's statement doesn't suggest that America will actually reduce its dependence on oil, just Middle Eastern oil.
Of course, two key phrases were absent from the address last night: "global warming" and "peak oil". Considering the Administration's outright denial of and opposition to the science of global warming and its potential for driving catastrophic climate change, it's little wonder it wasn't mentioned, though it could be argued that the State of the Union's emphasis on "clean coal" technology and more nuclear power, might indicate a grudging admission of the consequences of man-made greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. A key aspect of "clean coal" and the President's "FutureGen" proposal is carbon dioxide sequestration. The nuclear power industry is now spinning itself as the answer to global warming.
While overt mention of the term "peak oil" was also missing from the president's comments, a careful reading between the lines here also suggests to me that the White House is worried.
After all, look where we are at the moment…
- Consumption of oil on a global basis is exceeding new discoveries by a ratio of as high as 4:1. For every new barrel of oil discovered -- like the recent 600 million barrel oil field in the Russian sector of the Caspian Sea -- the world is consuming 4 barrels from old fields.
- World oil production capacity is at 84 million barrels of oil a day.
- All of the world's 1,400 oil exploration rigs are spoken for and the average age of experienced oil field workers is approaching 50.
- Russia's recent shenanigans towards Ukraine and Georgia suggests they are not going to be a very dependable, much less compliant world supplier.
- Certainly the political climates in Venezuela and Nigeria aren't all that encouraging to U.S. interests in those regions.
- Oil and gas production in North America continues to fall.
- Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, is a powder keg ready to explode. A war with Iran could send oil prices from $95 to $150 a barrel, or higher.
- Efforts to restore Iraq's oil production continue to be disrupted by the ongoing insurgency there.
- China and India are pooling their efforts to line up new oil contracts in direct competition with the West.
Also missing was any talk about energy "conservation". There was no call for Americans to rethink their motoring priorities, just unquestioned faith in the salvation of technology, which also underlies the president's Asia-Pacific Partnership on climate change. The implication is, we don't have to revaluate our behavior as individual energy consumers; technology will save us.
Certainly technology will play a vital role in transitioning to a post-petroleum world, but I think its going to take a combination of technology and behavior-altering policy to help redirect market forces from their present consumptive trajectory.
So, while I am pleased that the Administration has come around on the issue of advanced electric-drive vehicles and biofuels, it is only a start, though a promising one to be sure, for the road that leads over Hubbert's Peak will be a long and difficult one.
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