Sputtering Start to Clean Cars

It's hard to believe. But as President Bush said in his State of the Union speech, the first car driven by a child born today really could be pollution-free and hydrogen-powered.

But that's only if the federal government takes the right approach to this "forever fuel," whose only byproduct is harmless water. While laudable, the president's plan to spend $1.2 billion on hydrogen-car research only puts the nation in first gear toward a world independent of dirty oil.

For starters, the government must support research on clean ways to produce hydrogen. Although it's the most abundant element, hydrogen doesn't exist by itself. It takes energy to isolate it. Right now, 96 percent of the hydrogen made in the world comes from fossil fuels - the very fuels that produce greenhouse gases and combustible geopolitics. Technologies using wind, sun, and biomass can churn out hydrogen, too.

At the same time, this energy revolution requires a national commitment akin to the space program. Even though foreign and domestic automakers are working on hydrogen-car prototypes, issues of cost, storage, and delivery require substantial government support to bring this transforming technology to market. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) has captured that spirit with a $6.5 billion, 10-year hydrogen plan that he likened to NASA's effort to put man on the moon.

And what about the 10 to 20 years between today's belching gas guzzlers and the future's dream machine? Consider the president's meager efforts to toughen fuel-efficiency standards for today's vehicles and encourage hybrid gas-electric cars. One has to wonder what influence automakers played in Bush's decision to deal only with a long-term solution.

Still, the White House can be congratulated for putting the nation on the road to hydrogen-energy - a route already being seriously explored by Europe and the auto industry, and one which holds great promise.

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