Star light, star bright: Wishing for a cleaner, less-expensive fuel

Star light, star bright, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight… How many of you said these words on a starry night, particularly if you were with your best girl or boyfriend as a teenager? Or, as a loving parent, how many of you taught your child to say these words as part of your effort to build his or her vocabulary or memory…or just to instill their capacity to dream?

Now Kate Gordon, the, legitimately well respected, president of Next Generation, seems to have forgotten the difference between wishing, hoping, dreaming and reality. Her recent brief “expert” article in the Wall Street Journal departs from reasonable projection into fanciful wishes.

Gordon is correct that the “average car” on the U.S. road is about 11 years old and that their negative impact on GHG emissions and our health is significant. She is also correct in pointing to the large impact that high gas prices have on “our wallets,” (I would add) particularly for low and moderate-income households. Clearly, for the poor and near-poor families and for the economically fragile moderate-income households, present gas prices mean less of the basic necessities: modest job choices, good food, housing and healthcare.

Where Gordon and I part company is with her suggestion that an auto replacement initiative or what she calls an Enhanced Fleet Modernization programs would generate a visible, short-term impact and would likely be supported now, by assumedly the federal or state governments, in a significant way. (I should indicate that while I was head of the urban policy in the Carter administration, HUD senior officials thought about offering support by providing older cars to carless, low-income folks to permit them to secure job opportunities in the suburbs. How times have changed. The concern about GHG emissions and other pollutants emitted from older cars that run on gasoline are now seen as a real environmental problem.) The difficulty with Ms. Gordon’s proposal is number one, money and bureaucracy; number two, money and bureaucracy; and number three, money and bureaucracy. Even California, which she touts, has had mixed results with its replacement and incentives to replace older car programs. Clearly, exporting California’s experience to many other states, given economic and political constraints, would be difficult and would likely result annually in a relatively small impact on the nearly 300,000,000 cars in the U.S of which approximately 85-90 percent are over six years old.

Car replacement is a nice thought, but probably, at this time, an exotic one. If policymakers are seriously looking for a way for large numbers of owners of older cars to immediately reduce their vehicle’s negative effect on the environment, air quality and their own costs of fuel, there are better ways. While we wait and hope for the advent of vehicles that are ready to run on renewable fuels and that simultaneously meet the travel as well as budget needs and demands of most low, moderate and middle-income Americans, we should look at natural-gas-based ethanol as a fuel for newer flex fuel cars and for large numbers of older vehicles converted to flex-fuel vehicles.

Ethanol is not perfect as a fuel but it is better than gasoline. It emits fewer GHG emissions and other pollutants harmful to the nation’s quality of life. Recent regulations, like ones initiated by Colorado, that significantly reduce emissions from drilling now will likely make life cycle environmental evaluations of natural gas changed into ethanol a much better environmental deal. The process appears technologically feasible at a cost lower than the production costs of gasoline. If ethanol is allowed to compete with gasoline by oil companies on an even playing field — oil companies generally control who gets what and where at most “gas” stations — ethanol will be cheaper than gasoline for the consumer.

It is relatively inexpensive to convert older cars to flex-fuel vehicles — perhaps as little as $100 to $200. Finding a way through lessening the cost of certification to expand the number of conversion kits certified by the EPA and, or, where relevant, allowing recalibration of software and engines, would expand the benefit-cost ratio for many older cars. Star light, star bright, we can have the wish we wish tonight concerning a cleaner environment and lower consumer prices in a relatively short time, while we continue to push for electric vehicles and a whole range of renewable fuels to achieve prime-time performance for most Americans.

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