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In This Section
pdf September/October 2006
e-mail June 30, 2006
e-mail April 28, 2006


Studying for the Midterms
Renewables in Action
Just Transition
Blue and Green in Ohio
Battle of Blair Mountain, Again
Unseating an Environmental Foe
Gaining Ground
America's Wild Legacy
Car Talk, Sierra Club Style
Sierra Club Insider
Who We Are:
Loyd Cortez
Christine Williamson
Erica Langenbahn


Sewage 101
States Take Lead on Mercury, Global Warming
I Want My MPG
Postcard from Puerto Rico
The Birdman of Baghdad
Advocate for Safe Weapons Disposal Honored
Stop I-3
Family Planning Key to Sustainable Future
Sierra Club Insider
Who We Are
Ken Smokoska
Larry and Vicki Patton
Claudia Hilligoss
Search for a Story
Back Issues

The Planet
Car Talk, Sierra Club Style

Interview with eClimate Herof Dan Becker, Sierra Clubfs Car Guy

by Pat Joseph

Automotive News, Detroit’s trade magazine, named Becker, the Sierra Club’s global warming expert, to its list of the top 10 people in Washington who most affect the auto industry, and Rolling Stone called him a “Climate Hero.”

Let’s start with the nitty-gritty, Dan. What do you drive?

I drive a Toyota Prius, 2000 model. It’s our only car. It doesn’t quite get the advertised mileage, but it does get about double what the previous car did, which was also a compact sedan.

So, do you consider your Prius a clean car? Or is “clean car” an oxymoron?

It’s definitely a cleaner car than most. The best hybrids are dramatically more efficient than the same type of vehicle without the hybrid technology. There are lots of other technologies that can achieve significant improvements, and most of them are combined in the hybrids.

We’ve talked for years about better engines, better transmissions, better aerodynamics. The hybrids use all of those and more. Most hybrids have regenerative braking, for example, so that they generate electricity when you slow the car rather than having that braking energy lost as heat. In addition, the hybrids have idle-off technology that turns off the engine when the car is stopped at a red light or in traffic and that saves even more gas.

So, there’s a lot of good technology in these cars. You don’t need to have a hybrid to have a relatively efficient vehicle, but most of the most efficient vehicles today are hybrids.

Are there good hybrids and bad hybrids?

There are good hybrids and less-good hybrids. There are some hybrids where the manufacturer used the technology to increase power and acceleration rather than to save gas and improve environmental performance. The Honda Accord hybrid, for example, is only about 25 percent more efficient than the normal Honda Accord, compared to a 50 percent efficiency improvement in the Civic hybrid. The Toyota Highlander is not a particularly stunning environmental achievement, nor is the Lexus 400H—both from Toyota. And GM is going to underwhelm everyone with its new Saturn Vue hybrid when it debuts in the fall.

The good news is that Americans seem to be responding appropriately by not buying these cars. They continue to wait in long lines to buy the best hybrids.

Ford made headlines recently when it backed off a commitment to sell more hybrids and instead chose to emphasize flex-fuel vehicles. What’s the story behind that?

Dan Becker

Well, it takes good technology and some level of commitment to make a significant number of hybrids. It only takes a desire to evade the law to build flexible fuel vehicles. A flexible fuel vehicle is a regular car or light truck that has the theoretical capability to run on alternative fuels such as E85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

I say theoretical because the vehicles usually have an optical scanner in the fuel line but no other significant changes to optimize them for running on ethanol. Ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline, so you need to coat the fuel tank so that it doesn’t corrode. The auto companies don’t do that because they recognize that the vast majority of people who buy these vehicles will never put ethanol in them. Why? Because out of 176,000 gas stations in the United States, only about 600 serve E85.

So, you may ask, “Well, if that’s the case, then why do automakers bother to make FFVs?” And the answer is because they get a credit, due to a loophole in the law, that allows them to evade CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards and make more gas guzzlers than the law would otherwise allow. The Big Three plus Nissan have all availed themselves of this loophole in the law, and recently Toyota announced that they intend to as well.

What if we had, say, 60,000 gas stations serving E85? Would FFVs start to make sense then?

Talk to me when we get anywhere near that. The reality today is that there are places where you would have to drive a thousand miles to find the nearest ethanol station. So, the first level of response is that E85 and FFVs are scams. If you really want to increase the use of ethanol, a better strategy and the one that the ethanol industry has proposed (as opposed to the auto industry which is pushing E85) is lower-ratio blends containing two to ten percent ethanol.

But couldn’t ethanol help wean us off oil?

Certainly there is some level of ethanol, if it were produced from cellulosic material—not corn or soy, but switchgrass and other woody feedstocks—that could help us back out some of our addiction to gasoline. But above some level there will be other problems. You may be using more pesticides and water to produce your crop. You may be displacing food production. You might end up importing feedstock from tropical countries where they’re already growing biofuel crops, but where any further increase will damage the rainforest. In Indonesia they’re planning to cut a thousand-mile swath of rainforest to plant biofuel plantations for the Chinese automotive market.

We used 140 billion gallons of gasoline last year, and we produced the equivalent of 2.5 billion gallons of ethanol, total. That’s a tiny fraction of the 140 billion. We would have to dramatically increase production to meet demand.

And that’s why—and this is a novel expression—the single biggest step to curbing our oil addiction and global warming and to save consumers money at the gas pump is to raise CAFE standards and make cars go further on a gallon of gas. For the average vehicle, we could cut our gasoline consumption by more than half just by using existing technology. And that doesn’t mean they all have to be hybrids. If they were all hybrids, it would be a much deeper cut than that. But it would also be somewhat more expensive.

Why has it been so difficult to get Congress to act?

Well, Washington is broken, and the Congress is broken. So we have a stalemate now. The bad guys can’t drill the Arctic, and we can’t raise CAFE standards and thereby take the Arctic off the table forever. The auto industry funnels a lot of money into congressional campaigns. They also have a very effective lobbying campaign based on a series of big lies—one of which, fortunately, has been proven wrong. And that is, “We can’t possibly make a vehicle that gets 40 mpg. It would be the size of a thimble. It would be unsafe. It would drive the automotive industry out of business.”

Well, the hybrid is a rolling advertisement to prove that wrong. But big lies are hard to kill.

Starting a few years ago, in 2001, we began a three-part campaign. One part was taking the fight directly to the auto companies, such as Ford. Another part was exciting people about hybrid technology to get them to recognize that they actually can choose clean vehicles and pressure automakers to make more of them. And the third part was going at the global warming problem through the states with the Pavley Law, which isn’t a mile-per-gallon fuel economy law but a global warming emissions reduction law. And we’ve now gotten 11 states to adopt that, plus Canada. And that represents about 40 percent of the U.S. and Canadian car-buying market.

The auto companies have sued to overturn the law, and that lawsuit will be settled by the courts in the next couple of years. But I think we’ll win—and then automakers will have a stark choice: Make clean cars and dirty cars in each of their plants and ship them accordingly, or decide, “Oh, the hell with it. We’ll just make them all Pavley cars and the whole nation will enjoy cleaner vehicles.”

President Bush has owned up to our oil addiction—an admirable first step in the recovery process. Has he done anything to follow up? And what should he do?

The president has the power himself to raise CAFE standards. He doesn’t need Congress to do it. And, in fact, the president proposed last year an extraordinarily modest increase in CAFE standards for light trucks and SUVs—all of 2 mpg for light trucks by 2011. That increase is a fraction of the dramatic improvement that we got from the first round of CAFE, which doubled the fuel economy of America’s cars from 1975 through the 80s. The technology exists to do this again, cost-effectively and safely, but the president has sat on his tailpipe rather than taking out his pen. That is shameful.

Here we have young Americans dying in Iraq. We have a lot of Iraqis dying. And we have all of the other consequences of oil dependence ranging from high gas prices to high global warming emissions, and enormous transfers of wealth to foreign nations, not all of whom are our best friends. The president talks piously about our oil addiction but has done nothing to begin to end it.

President Bush’s early emphasis was on the promise of fuel cell cars. But we haven’t heard much about that lately. Is there a future for fuel cell cars?

There may be, but it’s a distant future. For starters, where are we going to get the hydrogen? It takes a lot of energy to create it. And then you’ve got to store it. If it’s a gas, you can’t put much of it on a vehicle, because you need a thick tank to hold it, for safety. So the driving range of the vehicle isn’t going to be very great. If it’s a liquid, it needs to be kept at minus 423 degrees F, which means you’re using a lot of your energy just to keep it cold. Someday, we may have a solid that we can use, but we don’t have one now. All that said, the fuel cell is a really neat technology with lots of potential applications. My guess is that it will most likely be used to run stationary plants first—buildings rather than cars.

Looking ten years ahead, where do you want to see us?

The scientists say we have about ten years to turn ourselves around on global warming emissions. We’re racing down a road that ends at a giant chasm, and we’ve got to stop the car and turn it around and go the other way. But there is no good reason why we can’t solve the problem. We managed to solve the problem of ozone depletion just in time.

We in the United States, the world’s biggest polluter, need to lead. We need to get our head out of the sand. We need to recognize that global warming is a major problem that faces our nation and the world, that we have a major role in creating the problem and that we therefore have an enormous obligation to solve the problem.

As an optimist (and to work on global warming you pretty much have to be an optimist), I believe that we will succeed. We have the technology to begin to get there. Others can be developed over time. It won’t be easy. What is lacking is the will to act, from our political leaders, from our corporate leaders. And there isn’t enough of a commitment among ourselves to demand the kinds of actions that are needed. Still, I think we can turn it around, and the Sierra Club is the right group to lead that fight.

Image by Sean Barry



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