New Fuels for Cars Promising, Problematic

Trying to brake dependence on foreign oil, carmakers and environmentalists are test-driving alternative means of propelling autos - and new transportation habits

'TAKE me riding in the car, car," folk balladeer Woody Guthrie once sang, adding a zestful "Brrrm brm brm."The year was 1954. The United States produced 91 percent of the oil it consumed. 'Mideast' brought to mind Baltimore rather than Bahrain. Cars averaged 15 miles per gallon on 29-cent leaded gasoline. The Environmental Protection Agency was 16 years into the future. Today automotive ebullience still imbues the American psyche. But so do increasingly urgent questions: How secure is our fuel supply? What alternatives could be used? How do we boost fuel efficiency and reduce emissions? Should we drive at all? Some of these questions apply to all sectors of energy consumption. But transportation, which accounts for 25 percent of US demand, usually captures the spotlight because it depends wholly on oil. In contrast, the 75 percent of demand for powering and heating homes, businesses, and industries is met with a mix of fossil, nuclear, and renewable resources. Petroleum products contribute only a fifth of this supply. Switching from oil to coal, natural gas, or electric heat is technically feasible, depending on the use. Many utilities and industries already have the capacity to burn whichever primary fuel is cheapest at the moment. Meanwhile, US oil consumption generally has been rising, while domestic output steadily declines. The production trend is irreversible and likely to accelerate, given the disinvestment by the oil industry and the prohibition on drilling in prospective but environmentally sensitive areas. As a result, imports account for close to half of the nation's oil supply. This damages the US balance of trade. And the economy's high degree of dependence on oil, domestic or imported, subjects it to price shocks when politics explode in the volatile Persian Gulf region, home to two-thirds of known world oil reserves. Brrrm brr ... sputter sputter ... wheeze. As the needle on the nation's fuel gauge drops toward E, the man in the driver's seat is President Bush. He has announced a national energy strategy (NES) in which market forces, rather than government decree, will determine which fuels and technologies keep the country rolling. Environmentalists are also looking at new possibilities. Some of the options include: Electricity. The White House announced last week the creation of the US Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC) to develop a new generation of batteries "that would make electric vehicles widely available by the year 2000." One hurdle has been the size and weight of the batteries needed to give an adequate range between recharging. The consortium will spend $260 million over four years to develop the new batteries. USABC includes the Big Three US automakers, and has support from the electric-utility industry. General Motors Corporation already has plans to build an electric car in Lansing, Mich. "We just got an amazing response when we introduced the [prototype] car" two years ago in Los Angeles, Sloan says. Natural gas. This fall GM delivered the first US production vehicle powered by natural gas to a California utility. GM already has orders for 1,000 more of the Sierra pickups, and expects to have 3,000 orders from fleet operators by the end of the year, spokeswoman Sharon Hines says. Buyers will pay a $3,685 premium but recover it through lower maintenance expenses and the lower price of the fuel, equivalent to 70 cents per gallon of gasoline. Natural gas and other alternative fuels lack a refueling infrastructure like oil companies' filling-station networks. But even oil companies, which usually have reserves of natural gas as well, are getting into the natural gas act. Shell opened California's first natural gas dispenser at a commercial filling station in Sacramento, where fleet vehicles are numerous. Chevron plans to install one of its own in that city, and more if the market takes off. Methanol, ethanol, MTBE, ETBE, hydrogen. Methanol and ethanol, made from natural gas and biomass like corn, respectively, are already on the market in several states in blends with gasoline. MTBE and ETBE are related products that show promise. Hydrogen, created out of water, could power conventional engines or electric cars in which a fuel cell electrochemically converts the gas to electricity. Trains/telecommuting. Some long-distance automobile travel could be eliminated through the construction of high-speed trains to link cities 200 to 600 miles apart, the NES document notes. And growth in telecommuting, in which employees work at home on computers linked to their office, will chip away at the 35-40 percent of work-related vehicle/miles. Conservation. Environmentalists would like to see automakers forced to improve mileage standards. A proposal by Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada would require an improvement from the current corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard of 27.5 miles per gallon to 40.2 m.p.g. in 2001. But after defeating the Johnston-Wallop bill, the Senate's main proposed legislation, last week, the Senate is unlikely to act on any energy legislation this year. President Bush opposes the Bryan bill because it contradicts the free-market principle contained in the NES. Automakers say customers can buy high-efficiency cars - if they want to. "No one's knocking down our doors to buy" the 58-m.p.g. Geo Metro, says David Sloan, GM spokesman. The car accounts for 1 percent of GM's sales. But Nicholas Lenssen, a research associate at the World-watch Institute, believes that "more efficient cars" do not necessarily mean "smaller cars." Lighter, stronger materials could be substituted for those now used to build the car, or engines could be made more efficient rather than more powerful. It would only cost Detroit another $500 to make cars more efficient, he says, but the savings in fuel over the life of the car would reach $2,000. Mr. Sloan says that the technology doesn't exist to make engines more fuel-efficient without causing emissions to increase. A new Japanese-made car with a "lean burn" engine is "a 49-state car" because it wouldn't be acceptable under California's strict emissions standards. [Nine Northeastern states and Washington, D.C., last week agreed to follow California's lead in emissions standards.] And it won't be marketable anywhere in the US after 1996, Sloan says, when standards get tougher nationwide.

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