The Corner

The Car Market Refuses to ‘Make It So’

One advantage of reading newspapers on paper is that you can delight in the juxtaposition of two articles on the same page. Case in point: the front page of the business section of today’s New York Times. The lead article details how car makers, under pressure to meet draconian corporate-average-fuel-economy standards for the vehicles they sell, are building all sorts of electric and hybrid cars and exhibiting them at shows — but no one is buying.

“The market is going in one direction and fuel-economy regulations are going the other direction,” said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of the automotive information Web site Edmunds.com. “Just because people start building more of something doesn’t mean the segment grows.”

Regardless, the automakers have little choice but to develop and try to push more hybrids as they prepare for fuel-efficiency requirements that call for significant increases later this decade.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the page, another article tells how oil refiners are being fined for not mixing cellulosic ethanol into their gasoline and diesel fuel.  Not that the Environmental Protection Agency cares, but the refiners have an ironclad excuse: They don’t mix in cellulosic ethanol because it doesn’t exist — or at least it can’t be bought, because no one is producing it, since engineers have not yet figured out how to produce it in bulk quantities.

“From a taxpayer/consumer standpoint, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense that we would require blenders to pay fines or fees or whatever for stuff that literally isn’t available,” said Dennis V. McGinn, a retired vice admiral who serves on the American Council on Renewable Energy.

Can’t argue with that.

Both articles reflect the EPA’s “make it so” mindset, in which the agency enacts rules in the belief that the mere act of doing so will make the necessary technology become available. And the thing is, that actually worked — once.

In 1970, the year the EPA opened for business, it enacted a rule requiring car makers to reduce certain emissions by 90 percent, starting with the 1975 model year. Engineers were baffled, but they tried a variety of methods, and through a series of lucky observations combined with brilliant insights, a team from Corning Glass and Engelhard Industries came up with a workable version of what we now know as the catalytic converter. Another series of miracles allowed the converters to be manufactured cheaply and easily enough to be mass-produced and included in cars starting in late 1974. Problem solved.

As William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA, said later:

“We thought we had technologies that could control pollutants, keeping them below threshold levels at a reasonable cost, and that the only things missing in the equation were national standards and a strong enforcement effort. All of the nation’s early environmental laws reflected these assumptions, and every one of these assumptions is wrong.”

Ruckelshaus said that in 1985, by which point the EPA’s culture of extreme techno-optimism had become clear. But a quarter-century later, the agency continues to act as if it can simply command cheap and effective green technologies into existence.

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