Where does Al Gore go to get his apology? After ridiculing Gore's enmity toward the internal-combustion engine and his scheme to encourage a replacement for it with a program of tax credits and subsidies, many Republicans are applauding a similar plan from President Bush.
He proposed a $1.2 billion program in his State of the Union address to develop a hydrogen car. Consider that money up in smoke, or in whatever is supposed to come out of the tailpipe of the future. The best that can be said for Bush's proposal is that it is a $1.2 billion PR initiative -- relatively cheap in Washington terms.
Judging from the evidence of the past 30 years or so, crash federal-energy programs always fail. Jimmy Carter initiated a push to create "synthetic fuels" as part of his National Energy Strategy. Shale, coal, tar sands, you name it, would be converted into petroleum, ending definitively our dependence on foreign oil. Years passed, billions of dollars were wasted, and we continued to power our cars on foreign petroleum.
Then there was Bill Clinton's "Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles." It pumped $1 billion or so to Detroit to create an 80-miles-per-gallon vehicle to run on conventional fuel. This great federal push for a new car stalled, producing nothing.
About the same time, Honda and Toyota -- on their own, without U.S. government support -- produced hybrid gas/electric cars that you can buy on most car lots in America. But no one wants them. The hybrid Honda Insight is essentially a Honda Civic that is roughly $7,000 more expensive. No wonder its biggest market appears to be Hollywood types who can afford to waste several grand on an environmental status symbol.
Maybe, eventually, someone will produce a hydrogen car affordable for multimillionaire SUV-hater Arianna Huffington (if not any of her household help), but it will be a difficult slog.
We power our cars on petroleum because it's a marvelous energy source -- it is concentrated (not dispersed like wind or solar), in relatively plentiful supply, easy to transport and burns at high Btu rates. Hydrogen is a different story.
First, there are no hydrogen wells or deposits. Some future equivalent of the Beverly Hillbillies will never shoot the ground and see hydrogen pour out. Hydrogen has to be separated from other molecules in substances like natural gas or water. (The biggest source of natural gas? The Middle East.)
Second, this is an energy-intensive process. So fossil fuels will have to be burned to create the hydrogen in the first place, and probably also to freeze it so it can be liquefied for easy transport. Environmentalists dream of powering this process with wind or solar energy, but that's a fantasy. The only viable non-fossil alternative would be nuclear, which enviros hate even though it is clean-burning and doesn't come from the Middle East.
Finally, the United States would have to replicate the enormous network that currently delivers gas to every other corner of American cities and roughly every 15 miles on the interstates -- a Marshall Plan-like undertaking.
This doesn't mean that hydrogen is necessarily worthless. According to Jerry Taylor of the free-market Cato Institute, private investors have poured about $2 billion in recent years into hydrogen research. If there is a commercially viable application for hydrogen, they are likely to find it -- not the federal government.
What can we do to protect the environment and stop any indirect U.S. funding of terrorism? The most straightforward environmental initiative would be to get old cars off the road. Emissions from a car built in 2003 are only about 1 percent of what came out of a tailpipe 15 years ago or so.
As for terrorism, a vigorous application of the Bush doctrine is all that's necessary, whether you are researching hydrogen or not. We should demand, backed up with whatever appropriate means, that oil-exporting states that support terrorism -- Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- stop.
Meanwhile, Al Gore waits for his apology.