Hydrogen-powered sticker shock

Posted: Mar 03, 2003 12:00 AM
There's something about bad ideas and Washington that go together. So expect a smooth ride for the Freedom CAR -- a new Bush initiative that proposes to spend $1.7 billion on the development of a hydrogen-powered car. "If you're interested in our environment and if you're interested in doing what's right for the American people, if you're tired of the same old endless struggles that seem to produce nothing but noise and high bills, let us promote hydrogen-fuel cells as a way to advance into the 21st century," President Bush said in a speech that hyped the FreedomCAR program last month. What Bush didn't say is that the FreedomCAR easily could produce "nothing but noise and high bills" as well, if history is an indicator. You see, FreedomCAR is a reincarnation of a bad Clinton program, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), instituted in 1993. At a cost to taxpayers of $1.5 billion, the PNGV partnered with American automobile manufacturers to develop an affordable family car that gets 80 miles per gallon. You never saw that car. The Big Three automakers and your $1.5 billion didn't deliver that car, while Toyota and Honda developed hybrid cars -- cars fueled by both electricity and gasoline -- such as the Prius, which averages 50 miles a gallon. As the National Taxpayers Union wrote in a new issues brief, "Toyota can research, develop and market a successful hybrid car on its own, but General Motors requires subsidies from the government?" Gives you pause, doesn't it? The Bushies realized that PNGV was a dog, so they decided to push for a different goal -- a hydrogen-powered car with its futuristic promise of no exhaust and no greenhouse gases. Alas, the FreedomCAR also has a futuristic price tag. Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of Nissan, quipped to The New York Times that the sticker on a hydrogen fuel-cell car would be around $700,000. Last month, The New York Times Week in Review asked watchdog groups what they'd cut in the federal budget. From right to left and in the middle, the
National Taxpayers Union, Cato Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Taxpayers for Common Sense listed the FreedomCAR. Sierra Club spokesman Eric Antebi noted that Toyota now makes a profit on the Prius -- well, after its research and development costs -- and Ford is about to market a hybrid SUV. "If this is the direction that consumers are going in, and the auto companies are going in, why is the administration going in a completely different direction?" Antebi added. "It doesn't make any sense." Enviros also don't like the fact that the FreedomCAR eases the pressure on Detroit to increase fuel-efficiency. Bush will be able to say that he's doing something about fuel-efficiency, just as Clinton said before. The rub is that fuel efficiency may or may not materialize in a decade or two -- the only certainty is that taxpayer money will be spent. National Taxpayers Union spokesman Pete Sepp noted that "a wasteful project doesn't become less so because it has a GOP label on it." His group plans to turn up the heat on the FreedomCAR. Bully, because Republicans are supposed to oppose big government, especially corporate welfare. FreedomCAR's just another word for $1.7 billion more to lose.