Green Cars, Environmental Quality and the Politics of Modern Mobility

By Dave Reeves, President, North America Products
ChevronTexaco Corporation

Energy Council 2002 Annual Meeting

Little Rock, Arkansas

The Energy Council, formed in 1975, comprises elected officials from 10 U.S. energy-producing states and international representatives from Alberta, Newfoundland and Venezuela. The council's members are key figures in the development of state and federal energy and environmental policies and also participate in dialogues with international energy and environmental policymakers to improve understanding of issues facing state, provincial and national governments.

Thank you for having me here. My name is Dave Reeves, and I am the president of North America Products at ChevronTexaco, the second-largest U.S.-based energy company and the fifth-largest in the world.

Today, I'd like to talk about a subject that's attracting an increasing amount of attention among scientists, environmentalists, business people, lawmakers and the general public.

It's about the future of automobiles and their fuels, and in turn, their potential impact upon energy security and the environment.

The fact is only 12 percent of the world's population has access to personal vehicles. Most of these are in the developed world. And it's here in the United States where cars are at the center of an increasingly intense debate.

On one side, you have those folks who love chrome, tail fins and massive horsepower — the roar of NASCAR at Daytona. Whether it's a pink Cadillac or one of those flashy new Mini Coopers, cars symbolize nothing less than freedom and democracy.

On the other side is what Rutgers University Professor James Dunn has called "the anti-auto vanguard." Surprisingly influential, these folks contend that personal autos do far more harm than good. After all, cars cause congestion and run into each other, often with fatal results. In construction and fuel use, cars consume a frightening share of resources. Worse, autos pollute the air and threaten to change the earth's climate.

Consumers said they wanted high mileage, low-emission cars ... just so long as they weren't their cars.

In the middle are most of us who know that cars and trucks are essential to prosperity and that it is mobility which supports abundant food, medical services and average life spans of nearly 77 years — and American lifestyles, which Tom Wolfe once said, "would make the Sun King blink." I doubt that, in his wildest dreams, Louis XIV could have imagined cruising down the Interstate in an Escalade.

And yet, despite our appreciation for the safety and utility of an SUV, our reliance on cars can produce a twinge of guilt. We may feel that we're using too much fuel, that drilling for more oil in the United States isn't environmentally responsible, and that we depend on oil-producing nations that aren't always the most stable, ethical or friendly.

We are, as a psychologist might say, a bit conflicted.

That became apparent to my company during focus group research we conducted last year. Consumers said they wanted high mileage, low-emission cars — just so long as they were big, powerful and stylish. They wanted regulations to force gas-guzzlers off the road — just so long as they weren't their cars.

And when discussing fears about future fuel supplies, gasoline prices and environmental quality, consumers demanded that someone ought to do something — and now.

Well, business and government are, in fact, already responding to these sentiments. This is what's behind the development of hybrid vehicles, which combine gasoline engines and electric motors to produce better mileage with less environmental impact. It's behind the fever for fuel-cell cars, including the Bush Administration's Freedom Car initiative and a flood of news releases about this or that hydrogen fuel-cell development. And it was behind the recent failed federal legislation to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards or the average mileage of the auto industry fleets.

These forces definitely led to the new California law that, in response to fears of global warming caused by greenhouse gases, would force carmakers to sell vehicles that produce less carbon dioxide. Essentially, this is California's attempt to make headway on an issue where Congress could not.

If carried out, the law could well limit sales on whole categories of vehicles, including pickups, minivans and SUVs.

... automotive carbon dioxide is a small component of total greenhouse gas ... the vast majority is water vapor and clouds.

Although wildly popular with environmentalists, the Carbon Dioxide Law is destined to produce a fascinating dialogue as regulators work on details of enforcement later in this decade. And it will get really interesting when consumers finally see the hard tradeoffs set against projected benefits.

We, of course, recognize that using fossil fuels contributes to atmospheric greenhouse gases. But while such gases and the potential for climate change are a genuine scientific and social concern, we don't know exactly what triggers global warming — or Ice Ages. We do know that automotive carbon dioxide is a small component of total greenhouse gas and yet the vast majority is water vapor and clouds.

And if you recall basic high school science, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. Without it, plants, trees and probably most life on earth wouldn't exist. Carbon dioxide does not irritate eyes or trigger asthma. So what we're discussing is mankind's addition to natural levels of carbon dioxide.

Trucks and autos are one source over which we have some control. But will better fuel efficiency slow a projected rise in global temperatures?

While some scientists believe a U.S.-wide effort would have a minor impact over the next 50 years, most acknowledge that if California were to do this alone, the effect probably could not be measured. While signing the bill, Governor Gray Davis admitted as much, calling the legislation "a good beginning and a good example for others to follow."

Fair enough. But if the legislation is for benefits that can't be measured and in trade for vehicles that are smaller, more expensive and limited in choice, this is not something I'd want to bring before my voters.

In any event, I'm not here to haggle over carbon dioxide legislation, CAFE standards or mass transit policy. Instead, what I'd like is to request is that you consider three things as we look into the future of mobility — and what it means to our health and welfare.

Of course, making forecasts about transportation is always perilous. There's a wonderful story about a New York scientist who in the late 1800s said that Manhattan's population would grow from 3 million to 7 million by 1930. He was right on target with that estimate. But he also predicted the city would be nearly unlivable, due to the manure from all the horses needed to haul that many people around.

Well, technology can obviously change outcomes. In New York, electric trolleys, subways and autos replaced horses. Today, futurists insist that hydrogen will replace gasoline.

Before we commit ourselves irrevocably to that course, I ask that we, as a society, first consider the full economic, social and environmental costs of the technology.

... there's no such thing as free energy. Dams, windmills and solar panels are hard assets that must be built from natural resources.

Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars are the Holy Grail of personal transportation. Right now, they're the stuff of breathless press releases, concept car drawings and publicity events. And they do have tantalizing qualities.

Fuel cells, which covert hydrogen to electricity, were used in the Apollo missions to the moon. Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. When run through a fuel cell to make electricity that powers a car, the only "tail pipe emissions" produced are heat and water.

What's more, if we learn how to crack hydrogen from water, with electricity that comes from wind, solar, hydroelectric or some other form of "renewable" energy, we'd get power without the price of petroleum. That's the promise of the "hydrogen economy."

The problem is there's no such thing as free energy. Dams, windmills and solar panels are hard assets that must be built from natural resources. Producing even "renewable" electricity requires huge amounts of capital, land on which to put the facilities, and dollars to operate them. And don't ever believe that giant fields of solar panels or huge stands of windmills along a coast would have no environmental impact.

If salmon could talk, they'd tell you we've already blocked enough wild rivers.

So, no matter how you make hydrogen — and the systems to safely transport and store it — the fuel will leave an environmental and social footprint.

ChevronTexaco is not against fuel cells. In fact, we're engaged in several stationary fuel-cell power-generation projects. And we're in research partnerships with General Motors and other automakers, to develop fuel-cell propulsion systems and their fuels.

However, instead of being fueled with bulk stores of hydrogen, we suspect that these autos will have onboard systems that will crack hydrogen out of a fuel-cell-grade gasoline and convert it to electricity to power the car. As an alternative to the internal combustion engine, these vehicles could double the mileage of a conventional car.

And with such an approach, there would be no need to build a new infrastructure to make and distribute hydrogen.

Since the early 1970s, exhaust emissions from a typical vehicle have dropped by more than 97 percent ... and ... are continually decreasing, despite a steady rise in miles traveled.

In any event, when you hear someone contend that hydrogen fuel-cell cars are pollution-free, I encourage you to push back with hard questions. Ask how will that hydrogen be made, and ask about its total impact on the environment.

My second request is that government and regulators refrain from favoring one technology over the other. It's fine to set reasonable standards, although it would be better if they were nationwide and part of a comprehensive and cohesive energy and environmental policy. But government shouldn't dictate how the standards are met.

Allowing companies to meet standards — while making a product that pleases consumers — is where business is at its creative best. If we've learned anything about electric car mandates, it's that consumers will not embrace a poorly performing vehicle that is vastly more expensive than an ordinary car, just because of perceived environmental benefits. A few even catch on when environmental costs are simply moved from the tail pipe to another location.

Finally, I urge you to consider the often overlooked progress on clean autos.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a symposium at the University of California at Riverside, which is conducting a study of "extremely low-emission vehicles." Using regular old gasoline and vehicles that are found on today's showroom floors, the school's scientists are dealing with emissions in concentrations so low that they are difficult to measure.

I want to share this that the people of Honda prepared for the symposium.

Since the early 1970s, exhaust emissions from a typical vehicle have dropped by more than 97 percent. Recent data from the EPA and the Department of Energy show that overall levels of airborne emissions are continually decreasing, despite a steady rise in miles traveled.

On this chart, you can see the remarkable leaps we've made, thanks to catalytic converters, cleaner-burning fuels and new auto technologies. That circle is just about where we are at today — near zero with the latest generation of cars. Now, since at least 50 percent of the U.S. auto fleet turns over every seven years, let's look ahead and consider the possibilities.

What if there were more cars like the new BMW sedans equipped with Engelhard "PremAir" technology, a radiator catalyst that actually filters ozone out of the atmosphere, leaving cleaner air behind? What if everyone drove vehicles similar to a couple Nissan and Honda models now being tested at Riverside? These have regular engines and are fueled with gasoline. But thanks to advanced emission controls, the air going out their tail pipes in certain urban areas is cleaner than the air taken into the engine. It is almost like a filter.

That's an image that can sure change perceptions of autos and the environment.

Of course, we still have days with poor air quality. Roads are congested. Public transportation could be better. And energy security remains an issue.

... all of us want cars that leave light environmental footprints. We're moving in that direction, faster than most people realize.

However, I believe you can do your constituents a service by convincing your colleagues to keep an open mind about the respective technologies behind mobility. When you compare the full consequences of hydrogen-powered autos against the next generation of conventional cars, the choice of the environmentally superior vehicle may not be as obvious as it seems.

Finally, there are some of us who want cars with more horsepower than the Clydesdales. Some want sleek styling. And others want basic transportation that's easy on the budget. In our hearts, all of us want cars that leave light environmental footprints.

We're moving in that direction, faster than most people realize. I hope it's a path on which we'll remain, and I appreciate your help in keeping us on course.

Thank you.

Updated: September 2002