Politics & Policy

What Would George Drive?

Bush goes green at the State of the Union.

In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, George Bush hit the rhetorical low of his presidency. By calling for an end to “America’s addiction to oil,” he not only embraced the radical, green vocabulary of Al Gore, but he undercut the principles of freedom, innovation, and anti-isolationism outlined elsewhere in the very same speech.

The president touted his commitment “to encourage innovation . . . and give our nation’s children a firm grounding in math and science.” But his oil-addiction comments were just the opposite, a prescription for ignorance. With his cynical pander to opinion polls and special interests, the president missed an opportunity to educate the nation on the essential role energy plays in our prosperity.

At least he didn’t ask: “What would Jesus drive?”

Bush promised that “we will change how we power our automobiles,” as if there is an alternative. There is not. Gasoline-powered engines are not dominant because oil company pushers have addicted us to the oil drug. Gas is simply the best energy source on the planet. At 18,700 BTU (British Thermal Unit) per pound, gasoline vastly outperforms ethanol–the president’s stated alternative–at just 11,500 BTU/lb. That means a gallon of gas goes farther, cheaper.

What’s more, because the creation of ethanol burns more than a gallon of oil for each gallon of ethanol produced, even environmentalists have abandoned it as an alternative fuel. Made from corn (and someday from weeds and wood chips, the president tells us), ethanol’s only reason for existence is as a political sop to the American farm lobby.

Hydrogen, another alternative cited by Bush, fares little better due to its massive production costs–not to mention the difficulty of establishing a national fueling infrastructure for an extremely volatile compound of Hindenburg fame.

Finally, the president primed the federal pump for “better batteries for hybrid and electric cars.” The president was taking us for suckers. First, he assumed the public’s ignorance of California’s failed electric-vehicle mandate in the early 1990s, which resulted in billions of research dollars invested in cars no one would buy. Second, he assumed no one has noticed the bloom has come off the much-hyped hybrid alternative. Confirming anecdotal evidence, a 2004 Consumers Reports study found that hybrid gas mileage falls a staggering 40 percent short of its EPA figures. For example, the Toyota Prius got 35 miles per gallon in city driving–42 percent off its EPA rating of 60 mpg. The small SUV Ford Escape? Just 22 mpg. – 33 percent short of its 33 mpg rating.

Rather than perpetuating leftist propaganda about alternative fuels, Bush might have “encouraged innovation” by touting recent advances in the gas engine. Take the new Corvette C6. Historically a gas guzzler, the 2006 Corvette gets a remarkable 28 mpg on the highway thanks to a six-speed gearbox and overdrive. Or he could have singled out modern, clean TDI diesel technology, which is already available in this country in cars like the Volkswagen Jetta–and consistently outperforms hybrid technology while actually getting the EPA mpg numbers (44 mpg) advertised.

By ignoring these advances and touting government-subsidized solutions, Bush’s way forward looks, in fact, an awful lot like the way backward. As Mackinac Center scholar Diane Katz notes, the “federal government has largely failed to commercialize nascent technology despite trillions of dollars in public R&D expenditures.

“In the 1970s, for example, the Carter administration created the Synthetic Fuels Corps to develop renewable energy sources. But the program was discontinued in 1982 without generating a dime’s worth of new power despite taxpayers $1 billion investment.”

President Bush tried to close the sale with the chimera of “oil independence.” If he were truly interested in giving “our nations’ children a firm grounding in science,” he might have explained that energy independence is a mirage. It is the fantasy of isolationists, a group that Bush otherwise took great pains to distance himself from in the speech.

Of course, Bush has also lobbied for developing Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the name of oil independence. Leaving aside that Bush seems to have stepped on his own case for oil exploration by declaring oil addictive, the experience of Alaskan drilling is instructive.

In the late 1970s, Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay began pumping one-million barrels of oil a day into the U.S. economy–”about half of what we use from Saudi Arabia every day,” says American Petroleum Institute economist John Felmy. So, 20 years later, why is the U.S. more dependent than ever on foreign oil? Says Felmy: “Because world markets adjusted their price to our production, and our demand continued to go up.”

In other words, the United States is true to its market principles in oil, as it is in autos, clothing, computers, and every other product that has made it the cheapest, most efficient economy on the planet. America is consumer driven, and that means giving us access to the cheapest products in the world, whether shoes made in China, or oil made in the Mideast.

Demonizing oil and the gas engine with anti-drug language confuses Americans about a product central to American freedom. The automobile has allowed Americans unprecedented mobility in pursuit of livelihood, travel, and access to affordable housing far from expensive, congested cities. Perhaps Bush feels embarrassed by his oil lineage. His State of the Union message echoes that of Ford Motor Company CEO Bill Ford–another child of industrial privilege who has gone green–in his “State of the Company” speech last month.

Ford too declared his firm’s commitment to the end of gasoline engines, a new world of ethanol-power, and a never-ending stream of government subsidies.

Hold on to your wallets, folks.

Henry Payne is a freelance writer in Detroit, and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.


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