Big oil latches onto hydrogen plan
By Dave Zweifel
May 5, 2003
Cars powered by hydrogen-powered fuel cells are the wave of our environmental future.
During this year's State of the Union address, President Bush proposed spending $1.2 billion on developing those fuel cells to, presumably, ultimately replace the fossil-fueled combustion engine that is blamed for so much of the country's pollution problems.
The president said the new cars would run on "a simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen producing only water, not exhaust fumes." Within 20 years, these new fuel cell cars "will make our air significantly cleaner, and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of oil."
That was good news, and environmental, health and conservation groups all applauded.
But no so fast, warns a recent article by Barry Lynn in Mother Jones magazine.
"What Bush didn't reveal in his national address," Lynn tells us, "is that his administration has been working quietly to ensure that the system used to produce hydrogen will be as fossil fuel-dependent - and potentially as dirty - as the one that fuels today's SUVs."
Lynn interviewed the chair of the American Solar Energy Society, Mike Nicklas, who was one of 224 energy experts invited by the Department of Energy last year to develop the government's "National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap."
The sessions, Nicklas related, were dominated by representatives from the oil, coal and nuclear industries.
"All the emphasis was on how the process would benefit traditional energy industries," he said. "The whole meeting had been staged to get a particular result, which was a plan to extract hydrogen from fossil fuels and not from renewables."
The plan, Lynn reported, does not call for a single ounce of hydrogen to come from power generated by the sun or the wind, concluding that such technologies "need further development for hydrogen production to be more cost competitive.
"... instead of investing in developing those sources, the budget that Bush submitted to Congress pays scant attention to renewable methods of producing hydrogen. More than half of all hydrogen funding is earmarked for automakers and the energy industry," he added.
The problem, Lynn concluded, is that if all the hydrogen is going to be produced from fossil fuels, the end result won't be much of a reduction in pollution, if at all.
Ironically, Lynn contended, the oil industry was never much interested in hydrogen production until the government started getting serious about it. Hydrogen had always been promoted by an obscure group called the National Hydrogen Association, composed mainly of scientists and various universities' faculty, who were experimenting with using water to produce the hydrogen.
As soon as hydrogen started gaining momentum, the oil companies rushed to buy up interests in technology companies developing ways to refine and store the new fuel. And the administration has seen to it that they have a good seat at the table in developing the president's new "pollution-free" car. They've been good campaign contributors, after all.
So, as Nicklas pointed out to Lynn, even if the rest of the world switches to hydrogen manufactured from water, Americans may end up dependent on fossil fuels for generations.
Published: 6:59 AM 5/05/03
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