Fear of environmentalism and global warming seems to stem, among many skeptics, from the fear that they will have to give up the technological luxuries that have become deeply entrenched in modern life. There is a misconception among the general public that, in order to curb global warming, we will have to abandon our modern modes of transportation and return to the horse-and-buggy days. However, I am among those who believe that we should set our sights on the future, rather than returning to the past to solve our climate conundrum. Yet, ironically, the technology necessary for forging ahead towards a more sustainable future has been around for over a century. Unfortunately, the relentless rise and pestilent proliferation of the petroleum industry, and its influence on our political system, has continuously confounded the adoption of more desirable, alternative fuel sources.
In 1888 Nikola Tesla invented the first electric engine capable of powering automobiles. Initially, this technology was widely and enthusiastically embraced, evidenced by the ubiquitous presence of electric-powered trolley cars in urban America at the turn of the century. However, during the early 1900s, when many Americans relied on public transportation, GM began buying up trolley cars and replacing them with gas-guzzling buses. As a result, the government was compelled to shift investment away from electric rail infrastructure in favor of paved roads and highways. By 1955 nearly all American streetcars were shut down and petroleum’s dominance as the fuel of choice was consummate.
Electric motors have come a long way since the advent of Tesla’s first AC induction engine. They are cheaper and more efficient than ever, and current trends suggest that continued improvements in price and function aren’t going to abate anytime soon. Perhaps the largest obstacles preventing electric vehicles from overcoming conventional cars in popularity are a lack of electric fueling stations and the limitations of battery technology. Both of these challenges are made more difficult by the fact that investment in electric infrastructure and research of battery technology is less enticing, from a financial standpoint, than continued investment in conventional fuels, due to the latter’s artificially low production price.
Another alternative automotive fuel that has been around longer than my grandparents is alcohol. In 1908 Henry Ford developed the first Model T, which could run on ethanol, gasoline or any combination of the two. Ford imagined that ethanol, which can be made from corn, potatoes, wheat, barley, sugar and many other common crops, would enable Americans to grow their own auto fuel. However, Ford’s vision was at odds with one John D. Rockefeller’s, owner of the Standard Oil monopoly. Rockefeller rightly feared that the rise of ethanol would reduce the demand for his black gold, and so he threw his political weight, and his fortune, behind the fledgling prohibition movement. Rockefeller’s involvement thrust the minority campaign to national prominence, and helped catalyze implementation of the 18th Amendment in 1919, banning the production of all alcohol, including fuel ethanol.
The popularity of FLEX fuel vehicles, which can run on a combination of gasoline and ethanol, is on the rise in America today. In fact, most cars, even those that aren’t advertised as FLEX fuel, can utilize alcohol, or can easily be modified to do so. However, as is the case with electric vehicles, the popularity of alcohol-powered cars is impeded by a lack of available fueling stations. Proponents of petroleum argue that we shouldn’t invest in biofuel infrastructure, because biofuels create an inherent tension between food and fuel. It isn’t fair, oil fanatics assert, to grow crops for fuel when there are starving people on the planet. This argument is fallacious, though, as it ignores the fact that ethanol fuel can be a co-product of many kinds of food, including animal feed. Nearly 40 percent of our nation’s corn production is turned into animal feed, which means that we already generate a significant amount of fuel-quality ethanol. The fact that biofuels and food aren’t mutually exclusive is further evidenced by Brazil’s success with sugarcane-derived bioalcohol. Brazil’s rise to prominence as world leader in bioalcohol production has coincided with a reduction in national poverty, and only a negligable increase in food costs.
Although the conversion of co-produced, or byproduct ethanol to biofuel has steadily increased over the past decade, it is still an underutilized, and underadvertised resource. Blending ethanol with gasoline has also become more popular, but to my mind, this is unnecessary. Ethanol is the cheaper, and more efficient of the two fuels, but this fact is clouded by a familiar culprit: competition-quashing government subsidies to Big Oil.
The United States government spends an estimated $37.5 billion annually on direct subsidies to the oil industry. This does not include the trillions of dollars that we spend every year fighting wars to protect the interests of Middle-Eastern petroleum producers. If this money was instead invested in new infrastructure and research for alternative fuels, we could rapidly resolve our nation’s energy crisis, and save ourselves a lot of money in the long run. Even if the government simply stopped supplying the oil industry with hefty subsidies, and allowed other fuels to compete on a level playing field, I suspect that renewable energy-powered vehicles would quickly eclipse antiquated gas guzzlers as the preferred mode of transportation for the majority of Americans.
The spirit of American capitalism is forged in the fires of competition. Our society venerates the consumer’s power to choose among competing productsl. Freedom, as we have come to define it, hinges upon our having options in the marketplace. If the government were to suddenly ban Coke, or make it prohibitively expensive, in order to facilitate the success of Pepsi, people would riot in the streets. It would be an intolerable affront to our liberty of choice, and it would be seen as a governmental attack on our individual autonomy. Yet, when it comes to fueling our vehicles, we are rendered powerless by the tyranny of petroleum. Freedom of choice at the pump, which can only be acheived through the reduction of unfair federal subsidies to the oil industry, would empower us to acheive energy independence, and allow us to begin healing our carbon-corrupted climate system.