Fuel Economys Puzzling Tug of War

by : Lauren Woods

Just after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official called on automakers and oil companies to cooperate in order to lessen emissions and bolster fuel economy, representatives from both worlds widely disagreed on the means to reach those goals. Moreover, the industry is now more baffled than before. Which side would triumph in the industry's current tug of war?

"The most effective way to lower carbon levels is to take a system approach... improvement can be made to both the fuel and the engine," said Margo Oge, the director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality. She spoke today at a panel discussion regarding the policies and issues surrounding future fuel choices at the SAE World Congress held at Cobo Center.

Considering the increases in vehicle traffic, to reduce carbon emissions to those seen in 1990, either the auto industry would have to more than double its average fleet gas mileage to 56 mpg or fuel companies would have to produce 15 times as much renewable fuel as they do today, Oge said. Additionally, Oge suggested that by working together, the industries could achieve the overall goal of pollution reduction, but also lower their industry targets to more realistic levels of fuel efficiency and renewable production.

But four representatives from the auto and fuel industries seemed worlds apart on whether to use ethanol, gasoline or hydrogen in the future vehicle repertoire. They are divided on how future fuels would be regulated and taxed. BMW AG's Christoph Huss shook his head while Samantha Slater of the Renewable Fuels Association said that the nation's ethanol producers would "blow away" government mandated production levels.

Huss, the BMW senior vice president for science and traffic policy, said the BMW still sees hydrogen as the long-term answer to the energy and pollution challenges of the automobile. He acknowledged that hydrogen appears to be losing ground to the biodiesel and ethanol in the minds of many Americas. He added hydrogen has the advantage of containing more energy than gasoline and that it can be created from a wide variety of energy sources which is known to be ranging from natural gas to solar power.

Critics in both industries point out that hydrogen is highly volatile and would require a complete replacement of the existing fueling infrastructure. Renewable fuels like ethanol are already dispensed through standard gas pumps.

The Shell Oil Vice President for Fuel Development Darran Messem said while he expects production of renewable fuels to grow, fossil fuels will still be the primary power for automobiles in 2030. Messem noted the infrastructure problems with hydrogen and the high cost of ethanol. Even considering near-record high oil prices, ethanol costs 70 cents more a gallon than gasoline, he said.

The fact is for environment-friendly fuels to be viable, they must be reasonably priced and they must be compatible to vital auto parts like the . "The challenge we face is that a vast majority of our customers choose fuel based on cost and convenience... even over concerns such as green house gases," Messem said.

Stronger government regulation, however, could help push oil companies and automakers to innovate, said Steve Plotkin, the transportation energy analyst at Argonne National Laboratory. In today's environment, he added, the automaker that opts to improve fuel economy at the expense of performance takes a big risk because competitors may invest in performance improving technology - and "Americans have chosen performance over efficiency for years."

Plotkin concluded, "Increased government mandated fuel efficiency standards would push all the car companies to come up with emissions-reducing and gas-conserving technologies."