What the world needs now is land (and honesty) to get to replacement fuels

I had the good fortune to meet and work a bit with Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera. We were both on an informal poverty task force created by President Kennedy. I always admired Land. Throughout his life, his comments were always thought-provoking. His suggestion that “politeness is the poison of collaboration” really challenged, and continues to challenge, many of the facilitation and leadership gurus and practitioners who sometimes seem to have invented linguistic anti-depressants. Translated: don’t get angry, hold your tongue, mind your manners, mute some of your views or make them sound less critical, try to be nice and likeable, move toward a win-win situation, compromise and, if you get intense, take a break and go out for a while. Have a beer?

Times have changed, but only a bit, since Land died in the early nineties. Many participants still go into a collaborative and/or facilitative policy process with squeamishness about being direct and honest about their concerns. Because of this fact, it takes many sessions, rather than a few, to get real, difficult issues on the table and achieve a real meaningful and honest dialogue. Bonding and game playing (real and surreal) are often seen as more important than advocacy as well as early substantive dialogue. There is often little chance to compromise because the people at the table compromise their own views before they speak. They want to be polite. We don’t really know what they really think. Building collaboration in the hands of a facilitherapist (my own word), is regrettably, at times, using everyone’s favorite term, an existential threat. It makes collaborative victories, frequently short-term ones, in light of the fact that underlying disputes and tension were not given an airing.

With this as context, let’s look at key policy and behavioral issues now confronting the nation, concerning the harmful link between gasoline, the economy and social welfare, and the environment, particularly greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other pollutants. As relevant, let’s also think about why it’s been so tough to move toward replacement fuels for gasoline, even though such options would benefit consumers and the nation.

Gasoline now fuels approximately 250,000,000 vehicles in the U.S. While GHG emissions from gasoline are down because of improved technology in vehicles, gas still generally spews more GHG than alternative fuels such as ethanol, methanol, electricity or fuel cells. Gasoline also fails health and well- being tests when measured against a range of other pollutants, including NOx and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Gasoline prices, while seemingly low (only) compared to the recent past, in some cases remain higher than alternative fuels, by a significant amount, whether based on renewables or fossil fuel. In this context, most of you reading this column are neither poor nor near poor. Imagine though, that you are, and in order to work, you need find housing at a reasonable cost relatively close to your job, see a doctor or take your family to see an aunt or uncle. But if you secure these and other basics, you have fewer choices since you have to spend from between 10-15 percent of your meager income on fuel. This is a verity now for most low- and moderate-income households. Indeed, based on EIA projections of gas prices and conservative as well as liberal economists conclusions concerning job growth and income, the percentages, likely, will increase in the future. If you were a person of very limited means, what would you limit first: travel to and from work, decent housing, health care or food, etc.?

Now, none of the replacement fuels are perfect. Most, including those based on or derived from fossil fuels such as natural gas, do emit some measurable GHG and other pollutants. This includes electric cars, particularly those that do secure their power from coal-fired electric utilities. But all are better than gasoline on environmental, economic and social welfare indices.

Why then is there not a clear movement toward transitional replacement fuels? Sure, electric car sales and CNG sales are up and hydro fuels will soon be on the market. Hopefully, they all will succeed in attracting consumers. But right now, all three together constitute from 1.5 to 3 percent of sales of new cars.

Why? Well, electric cars, CNG and hydrogen fuel cars are expensive and out of reach for many American households. For some, particularly those who purchase lower-end electric cars, the miles per charge often create road fear on the part of drivers. “What if I get stuck on the L.A. freeway?” Fuel stations are few and often far between for both electric, CNG and hydrogen fuel.

New electric, CNG or hydrogen fueled cars, at least for the near future, will illustrate for us all the comparative purchasing power of the haves, the have nots and the almost haves. Hopefully someday soon, most Americans will be able to compete — price, technology and design wise — for larger shares of the automobile market. But even if they become competitive, they will not be able to generate a major dent in the number of existing vehicles that rely on the internal combustion engine for a long time. Look at the data yourselves! Given their predicted annual sales, how many years would it take before the fleet of privately owned vehicles contained a very large percentage of electric, CNG, or hydrogen fueled vehicles (perhaps as much as 50 to 75 percent or more)? I have seen figures ranging up to almost several decades from respected analysts . Clearly, if sales of hybrid and plug-in vehicles are counted in the totals, the amount of time, it takes will be lower. However, achievement of a proportionately large share of the total number of cars will still extend out a many many years.

What can we do to achieve legitimate important national objectives concerning the environment, the economy and consumer costs for vehicles and fuel almost immediately? We can move to expand the number of FFVs (flex-fuel vehicles) in the country, first, by encouraging Detroit to build more each year and second, by asking public, nonprofit and private sectors to work together with the EPA to certify more conversion kits as well as existing in-use cars for conversion to FFV status. The net results would be vehicles able to use much higher percentages of ethanol (E85) derived from natural gas or from corn cobs, husks and stalks as well as other biofuels.

The proposed strategy is a transitional one. Clearly, electric, CNG and hydro fueled cars, when able to meet market tests concerning consumer needs, should join the mix of choices at the pump. I am optimistic. For example, twenty two states led by Colorado and Oklahoma have agreed to use CNG fueled cars to replace older cars retired from their state’s fleets. Detroit with the pool of CNG cars purchased by the states has agreed make best efforts to develop a lower cost CNG vehicle. Electric cars are coming down in costs. Hydro fueled cars will likely be produced in larger numbers soon and technology over time will reduce vehicle prices.

Now back to Edwin Land. I believe his comments about politeness, perhaps a bit too absolute, reflect his and my own views that the ground rules for collaborative efforts and consensus building may impede honesty concerning discussions of difficult topics. Being polite sometimes circumscribes and weakens important strategic dialogue. Involved participants fear being direct and sometimes avoid linking their intense feelings to their commentary. They try to avoid criticism or be seen as breaking the mythology of togetherness concerning long-term objectives and initiatives. Indeed, both objectives and initiatives are often so long term, that they are vague and don’t really matter to folks at the table. So why not go along? Individuals either avoid saying things that might lead to even temporary policy, program or behavior conflict and debate.

Politeness, certainly, is generally a virtue in most circumstances. Perhaps Land went too far in his choice of words. But the term, if used to guide collaborative efforts, often serves to mask real disagreements and necessarily blunt conversation. I have done lots of facilitative sessions on policy issues between senior officials of different nations and the U.S., as well as between community leaders on education, growth, environmental, race and poverty issues. Maybe the difference is miniscule, but I like the term being “civil” rather than being “polite;” the former presumes disagreement and allows for willingness to entertain tough dialogue and the possibility that the dialogue might step, at times, on intellectual toes; the latter, when translated into behavior, often suggests a willingness to skirt conflicts regarding ideas, if it temporarily reduces the ambience at the table.

Leaders from all sectors need to help build a collaborative “coalition of the willing” among environmental, public interest, government, private sector, nonprofit and academic leaders to push for flex fuel cars and replacement fuels. The criteria for coalition selection should be relevance to the policy and political issues related to gaining the public’s access to multiple fuel choices at the pump and to secure a much larger number of new FFVs as well as existing vehicles converted to FFV status. Identification and selection should not be limited to leaders who think exactly like us. But both should be limited to individuals who care about the environment, the economic and job growth of this nation, the well-being of consumers, particularly low- and moderate-income consumers and, although not discussed above, the security of this nation and the world. Claims of absolute wisdom should be a non starter for membership.

I suspect if the leadership group is diverse enough and if reasonable ground rules concerning structure and processes are set at the outset (ones that encourage substantive dialogue and debate ), disagreements can be bridged based on the data and agreements reached on transitional replacement fuel strategies that would influence public and private sector decision makers. A good facilitator would be needed, one weaned on policy and strategy more than psychology. A nationally respected foundation, or possibly even EPA, could either support or indeed facilitate the proposed serious exercise in collaboration and democracy. Civility, not politeness, should be a principle governing the dialogue.

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