TCS Daily


Alternative Universe

By Brock Yates - February 1, 2002 12:00 AM

One can't help but shed a few crocodile tears for our friends on the Democratic left as they scramble to find political high ground in the wake of George Bush's tidal wave of approval following his State of the Union address. Some of the 2004 presidential aspirants such as Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. Tom Daschle find themselves in the curious position of acting like high-pocketed pecksniffs, grousing about the President's call for more spending on a variety of domestic fronts. Others, such as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, have chosen to carve out narrow policy niches that serve as paradigms for broader themes regarding the national welfare.

Senator Kerry has pitched his flag on the issue of energy independence, which he outlined in a recent speech to the Center for National Policy. This seems to make sense, considering that over 40 percent of our petroleum comes from the unstable Middle East in general and from Saudi Arabia in particular. This sand-swept nation enjoys unique immunity thanks to its oily sub-strata. Polls on both sides of the aisle waffle about the unspeakable truth that a majority of the terrorists now residing at Gitmo and the deranged Osama himself are Saudis.

So while everybody avoids this reality out of fear that the sheiks will shut off the spigots, the cry rises up for the euphemism, "energy independence." This is a utopian state wherein America chugs around in vehicles propelled by fuel cells while our industrial power, home heating, etc. is generated by solar, wind, geo-thermal, bio-mass, hydro and anything else that does not involve the ignition of a fossil fuel. A lovely notion, to be sure. Except for one problem: None of the alternatives is remotely feasible in terms of meeting the energy needs of an advanced industrial economy. With nuclear energy a taboo to the greens and other power sources too limited, too expensive, too exotic or too impractical, we are left with our old filthy friends, coal and oil, to keep the home fires burning and the nation on the move.

Senator Kerry is a practical man he acknowledged that changes cannot come overnight. In his call for a "National Energy Initiative" he proposed a joint government/business campaign to make a transition to what he described as "clean, reliable energy." He noted similar cooperative projects that electrified rural America plus the monumental Manhattan Project and the grand moon shots of the 1960's. What he did not mention was the recent fiasco of the Clinton Administration that sucked up billions while attempting to design and build an 80 mile-per-gallon sedan or the recent news that another joint government/business co-op called Amtrak lost $1.1 billion last year.

The Senator also called for increases in the CAFE mileage standards, although he artfully dodged specific numbers. The target of opportunity in this issue is of course the so-called sport utility vehicles or "SUV's." They have become the archenemy of the left, the greens and the media elite while ironically their old Clinton allies, the soccer moms of the nation, embrace them for their safety and versatility. SUV's and their gas-guzzling partners, pickup trucks, now must average 20.7 mpg within a complex set of government rules. The biggies in these classes built by Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler will not meet the standard.

I own a leviathan Ford F350 dually pickup with a turbocharged Diesel V8. On a good day it is lucky to achieve 12 mpg. Yet it is an irreplaceable steed for a variety of towing and hauling tasks involving my family and me. It is not a frivolous possession, nor are 99% of the big pickups and SUV's in current use by Americans. We are not witless status slaves who buy and drive husky machines like this for dimbulb satisfactions. We use them because alternative vehicles that are lighter, less powerful and less sturdy will not do the required tasks. Clearly I would be delighted if my big Ford consumed less fuel, but I understand that only incremental mileage increases can be made with available technology without sacrificing the elemental capabilities of the machine.

All manner of demands, edicts, laws, regulations, chest thumping and table-pounding will not make it otherwise. We are a nation that relies on unfettered mobility. It is a vast country involving vast distances. Power, speed and free movement are at the core of our economic power, especially in the great heartland far removed from the chi-chi-salons of Georgetown, the Manhattan media-elites and the Cambridge academia. High-minded calls for better fuel mileage may make for headlines and foundations for political campaigns, but a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine may be decades away regardless of the Department of Energy's new "Freedom Car" initiative, which may or may not produce results. Unfortunately, there exist technological mysteries that defy solution. Example: the creation of a light, long-lived, renewable storage battery capable of powering a normal-size automobile to serve as a replacement to the modern, clean-burning and internal combustion engine.

Perhaps Senator Kerry might go the whole distance and demand a national policy to create cold fusion or perhaps perpetual motion. And why not throw in a cure for cancer and the common cold?
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