Address to Special Plenary Session on Clear Skies
Patricia A. Woertz, Executive Vice President, Global Downstream
13th Annual Conference
New Orleans, Louisiana
I'm very pleased to be with members of the Society of Environmental Journalists. I have a real appreciation for the work you do. I think the issues surrounding our environment are as complex as they are important, and I think those of us in industry -- as well as the public -- look to you to provide the clarity and perspective we need for meaningful public discourse on these very challenging issues.
"Clarity" is both our subject and our goal here today. We want to talk about clear skies and the role automobiles and other sources of emissions play in air quality. And as we do, I also hope to clear away some misconceptions I think affect both our understanding about air quality today as well as some of the solutions that are being advocated to improve air quality in the future.
When we think about air quality today, I'm not sure we have a true understanding of the condition of our skies and what's happened to them over the past decades. And I guess I would have to include myself here because, about a month or so ago, I found myself surprised to read an article in my local paper about a spate of bad smog days in Los Angeles.
Smog in Los Angeles -- isn't that redundant? How is that newsworthy? But, as you may well know, it is newsworthy because of the significant improvements in air quality that have been achieved in Southern California.
If you think of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, you think of a city blanketed in smog. It was common then for Southern California to have more than 100 stage-one smog alerts each year. But since the mid-1990s, there have been periods where Los Angeles has gone 12 months without a stage-one alert, despite the fact that the region now has some 10 million vehicles, traveling nearly triple the mileage they did in the 1970s.
And it isn't just Los Angeles that has better air today than it did a generation ago. Nationally, quantities of airborne carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide have declined more than 50 percent over the past two decades, and airborne particulate matter is down at least a third.
But these improvements don't seem to be recognized by most Americans. A recent Wirthlin poll found that 66 percent of Americans believe air pollution has grown worse in the past decade, and this finding is echoed in studies by Gallup and others. Obviously, there is a significant disconnect between public perception of air quality and what's actually happening in the environment.
Why does this disconnect exist? I would ask you if you think the information the public receives accurately portrays the improvements in our air quality, or if it creates the opposite impression. And I would also suggest that, in the absence of accurate information, people simply assume the growing number of cars on the road and the many more miles they are driven must create greater air quality problems.
But, as we've seen, this isn't the case. Pollution measurements show emissions from gasoline vehicles are dropping by about 10 percent per year. These declines are so significant that they more than make up for the addition of more motorists, driving more miles each year.
So, what accounts for these improvements? Simply, cleaner gasoline and cleaner cars.
I should mention that in my home state of California, the latest generation of fuel is the cleanest-burning gasoline in the world. But cars are the biggest part of the story. And to the public, they are certainly the more interesting part.
Let's face it: Americans love their cars. We love them so much that people sing about them. Jan and Dean serenaded the GTO; the Beach Boys promised "fun, fun, fun 'til Daddy takes the T-Bird away." Even the queen of soul Aretha Franklin went driving down the "freeway of love in a pink Cadillac."
No one writes songs about gasoline. OK, I can accept this. Even though my industry is relegated to a supporting actor in this story, it remains a very interesting and very important story.
The reason air quality has improved while drivers and mileage have increased is that, quite simply, cars have gotten cleaner and greener over the past decade. And there is a new generation of vehicles that are the cleanest cars yet. These superlow-emission cars include hybrids -- with both gasoline engines and electric motors -- and ultraclean conventional engines that run on today's gasoline formulations.
The University of California at Riverside has studied these so-called "green cars" to assess their tailpipe emissions. And the preliminary results are surprisingly good.
According to the researchers, emissions from these vehicles are so minimal that they often cannot be measured with conventional equipment. In a recent press release, Allan Lloyd, the chairman of the California Air Resources Board, acknowledged the remarkable impact of the cleanest versions of these cars. He said, "We've seen the near impossible with gasoline vehicles: zero evaporative emissions, exceedingly clean exhaust -- cleaner, in some cases, than the outside air. ..."
Think about this: In other words, the air going out the tailpipe of these cars is actually cleaner than what's going into them, which is a pretty interesting twist on cars and air quality. It's almost as if we can drive around in rolling air filters.
Even more impressive is that some of these gasoline-powered cars produce less emissions than the power plants needed to make electricity for battery-powered cars.
Now, in about two weeks, the scientists at UC Riverside are going to announce the final results of this three-year study during a "clean-car" event at the Infinion Raceway in California. The event, called Challenge Bibendum after the Michelin tire man, will feature more than 70 of the most environmentally friendly passenger and commercial vehicles, including electric cars, hydrogen fuel-cell-powered vehicles, hybrids with gasoline engines and electric motors, and conventional vehicles.
The vehicles will be judged on performance across a number of dimensions, including acceleration, braking, fuel economy and tailpipe emissions.
I mention this event because, if you can get yourself an invitation, I think you'd find it fascinating in general and extremely interesting from your perspective as environmental reporters. It's the only place I know of where you can witness right in front you, right now, several alternative futures for personal mobility.
While the event no doubt will demonstrate that conventional cars today continue to go faster than many of the alternatives, go farther between fuel stops and use fuel that's widely available and relatively cheap, what may surprise you is that these cars are also environmentally competitive. And it may be even more interesting to project the impact of this ultraclean car technology going forward.
Given that a large percentage of the automotive fleet turns over every eight to 10 years, the UC researchers have estimated that "if this new gasoline-engine technology is aggressively implemented, by 2015 the gasoline automobile will no longer be the major contributor to Southern California air pollution problems."
This won't, of course, mean that our air quality challenges are over. We must also address the issue of diesel-powered trucks, bulldozers, forklifts and other heavy equipment, all of which produce particulates and emissions of nitrogen oxides that compromise air quality.
We're happy to see autos that significantly reduce emissions. But we know as long as internal combustion engines burn hydrocarbon fuel, they will produce carbon dioxide, a primary greenhouse gas. So conservation and better fuel mileage, which in turn reduce carbon dioxide emissions, will remain an important goal for all of us.
And we're doing our part. As well as being an energy producer, ChevronTexaco is also a significant energy consumer, so it has worked to reduce its own energy consumption around the world and has increased energy efficiency by 21 percent since 1991.
I mentioned earlier that you would be able to see at Challenge Bibendum several alternatives for personal mobility. One of those alternatives certainly sparking interest is hydrogen fuel-cell technology.
Hydrogen fuel cells are being proposed as a replacement for the internal combustion engine and, in theory, as a means of eliminating the use of hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide emission. So their appeal is easy to understand. A hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle that emits only water from the tailpipe, for instance, sounds great!
ChevronTexaco, as well as others in the energy industry, is exploring various applications for hydrogen fuel cells. One of our subsidiaries has developed a system that processes natural gas into hydrogen. But before this technology is applicable on a broad scale, there are some issues that will need to be addressed.
Although hydrogen is one of the most common elements in the universe, it's not easily collected into a convenient form of energy. Hydrogen energy must first be manufactured from oil, coal or natural gas. Alternatively, it can be extracted from water, which is how we get the vision of an automobile that emits only water from its tailpipe.
However, extracting hydrogen from water requires large quantities of electricity. And that brings up one caveat about fuel-cell cars that I would like to emphasize and you might like to investigate.
It's the notion that, if we just replaced gasoline with hydrogen made with renewable sources of electricity, such as wind and solar, our air quality problems would be over. From the tailpipe perspective, that may be true. But I'd like to introduce a thought that John Muir expressed quite eloquently, back in the 19th century: "When you tug at a single thing in nature, you often find that it's attached to just about everything else in the universe."
I know that, as environmental journalists, you see this concept illustrated in our world all the time. We've certainly seen how it applies to the internal combustion engine.
Here is how it applies to hydrogen fuel produced by renewable energy sources:
The most prime locations for the mass production of electricity from renewable sources are windy and sunny coastlines and deserts, ecosystems that can be as fragile and in need of protection as any other.
Now, my comments are not to suggest that we should back off the development of renewable energy sources. In fact, ChevronTexaco uses solar energy systems to power oil-field equipment, and we have equity interests in about 50 wind-power projects around the world. We believe that, in the right places, renewable energy has cost-effective utility and is environmentally acceptable.
However, producing the massive amounts of renewable electricity that would be necessary to make hydrogen energy from water -- in quantities sufficient to fuel our transportation needs -- could have tremendous environmental consequences. And I can't imagine the public would favor large habitat loss of land devoted to windmills -- or more rivers blocked to make hydropower.
The obvious point is this: Producing hydrogen energy will have its impacts. Every tug in one place creates movement in another. As a society, we owe it to ourselves to understand those impacts, those movements, before we make decisions that affect our environment and our quality of life.
And that's why I felt it was so important to come here and visit with you. The decisions we make as a society depend so heavily on the quality of information we have before us. And, as journalists, you are arguably the most important source of that information when it comes to the highly complex story about cars, energy, clean air and the environment.
I hope this brief discussion has encouraged you to look at this topic with a fresh and perhaps unconventional perspective, to explore the impacts that all tugs on nature have someplace in the universe, and to tell in your own way whatever story you might find.
Updated: September 2003