WASHINGTON -- Nearly the entire United States Congress jumped to its feet and clapped wildly Tuesday night as President Bush pledged $1.2 billion to fuel the development of hydrogen-powered cars.
Not George Miller.
Miller, the East Bay congressman considered one of the House's most outspoken environmental activists -- and whose district includes one of the world's few hydrogen refueling stations -- remained seated. His applause was polite, but brief.
"I think it's a bit of a ruse," Miller said Wednesday of Bush's proposal. While he said he welcomed additional federal aid, Miller argued that the nation's air quality problems can't wait
for the President's decade-out spending plan.
"The President's answers are always 10 years away," Miller charged. Bush's vision of pollution-free cars cruising America's highways "has a lot of sex appeal, but there are a lot of things he could be doing today. He could be supporting California's efforts to reduce emissions."
Much of the environmental community echoed Miller's sentiments Wednesday, as did the director of a major center of fuel-cell research at the University of California, Davis. Auto manufacturers, oil companies and the groups helping them to make hydrogen-powered cars an everyday reality, however, said they were ecstatic.
"We're floating on air out here," said Joe Irvin, spokesman for the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a voluntary partnership of car makers, oil companies, fuel cell companies and government agencies based in Sacramento that has been working to develop, demonstrate and commercialize hydrogen-powered vehicles.
"The president's announcement is encouraging. Fuel cells are an exciting new technology that could figure prominently in America's energy future," said Ed Murphy, general manager of refining and marketing with the American Petroleum Institute.
Currently there are fewer than 30 hydrogen-powered cars in the nation, and almost all of them are in California, Irvin said.
Last year, Richmond dedicated the first hydrogen fuel cell refueling station in the Bay Area, and AC Transit officials have predicted the first hydrogen-powered bus by 2004.
In smog-choked Los Angeles, Mayor Jim Hahn recently signed a lease with Honda to deliver five hydrogen-powered cars for city employees. Honda also has given one of the experimental cars to University of California, Irvine, while Toyota has donated one to University of California, Davis, for research.
Under Bush's plan, $1.7 billion over five years would go toward the Energy Department's Freedom Fuel and Freedom Car initiatives, devoted to developing hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology. The proposal also includes $720 million in new funding. Bush is expected to propose $273 million for 2004.
Irvin said the money "will help develop both the technology side and also the infrastructure for delivering hydrogen."
Dan Sperling, head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California, Davis, said he hopes so. But he and others cautioned that whether Bush's vision that "the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free," becomes a reality really depends on where the money ultimately goes.
"Is it going to be spent on tax credits, or is it going to be spent on building fuel stations or will it go to the national laboratories?" he asked.
Myron Ebell, environmental analyst with the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank, said the commercialization of such technology is more like 20 or 30 years away.
"It's promising, but it's very, very far down the road," he cautioned. Ebell criticized the President's proposal as an unnecessary gift to the oil industry.
"We don't think federal funding of special interests is a good idea," Ebell said. "Why should taxpayers be supporting a special interest, and why is federal funding needed when there's already a lot of private funding in it?"
Indeed, with pressure to introduce more zero-emission vehicles -- like California's law requiring a percentage of new cars sold to produce no smog -- the auto industry has been racing for several years to develop and commercialize cleaner fuel technologies.
In the meantime, though, automakers have mounted a legal challenge to California's emissions law and they have the support of the Bush White House. Several environmental advocates, including Miller, charged the administration with hypocrisy in touting clean air reforms while fighting California clean air initiatives.
"I think it's California that really deserves credit for sparking a revolution in automotive technology," said Jason Mark, director the clean vehicles program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Sperling said despite the President's promise of a funding infusion into his pet project, he agrees with Miller that Bush has not done enough to promote energy independence and clean air standards.
"Given that we use one quarter of the world's oil and given that we produce a huge proportion of the greenhouse gasses, we need to be doing something about it," he said. "This heads in that direction ... but there's a lot more that can be done and should be done."
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