Emissions from cars and trucks are central to debates about air pollution and how much of such pollution poses an acceptable risk. The first federal clean air laws were passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Pollution-control devices and lead-free gas have decreased some emissions. The onus is on the automobile industry to produce more efficient cars that use less gas and to decrease the environmental impact of vehicles. Emissions from cars and trucks continue to accumulate in land, air, and water. Increased retail sales of fuel-inefficient sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and light trucks, combined with overall increases in number of vehicles, continues to generate emissions that degrade air quality.
Environmentalists want cars with higher fuel efficiency that produce less pollution. Consumers want inexpensive gas and more cars and trucks to drive. Communities want clean air and have valid public health concerns. The petrochemical industry claims it is moving with deliberate speed to comply with environmental standards, garnering tax breaks and profits along the way. However, the near collapse of General Motors and its recent response—to bring hybrid cars to market—suggests a new commitment to social consciousness and less emphasis on Wall Street and profits. For example, in the past, large, luxurious vans turned the largest profit for General Motors, prompting the company to abandon its Saturn brand in favor of gas guzzlers. Many marketing the GM Saturn initially contended that fuel-efficient cars of this kind represented GM’s future. However, when bottom lines did not rise fast enough to satisfy stockholders, GM succumbed to pressure and killed the brand.
I. Fundamental Conflict: Industry and Government
II. Hybrid Electric Vehicles
III. Fuel-Cell Vehicles
IV. What Is Biodiesel?
V. Biodiesel and Global Climate Change
VI. Are There Other Environmental Attributes of Biodiesel?
VII. Oil and Power: Impacts on Automobile Energy Efficiency
VIII. Political Controversy: Tax Breaks for Oil Campaign Contributions?
Fundamental Conflict: Industry and Government
The battle between the government and industry over legislating the production of more efficient vehicles is a long-standing one. Most of this legislation requires minimal compliance by industry at some date years in the future. Manufacturers claim that it takes resources from research and development right now to try to change production technologies to meet those standards. Sometimes they get tax breaks and other public policy–based encouragement to do so. One area of contention is the free market. Market demand is for more cars, trucks, airports, and other petrochemical-based activities. Does legislation from democratically elected representatives constitute market demand? Many economists would say that it does not. Environmentalists claim that the minimal requirements are not fast or stringent enough.
In early April 2010, President Barack Obama changed fuel economy standards in the United States. The administration issued final regulations compromising fuel economy standards set in the Clean Air Act requiring fuel efficiency to increase to over 40 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2015 and 55 mpg by 2025. The compromise, which required an increase instead to 35.5 mpg by 2016, was celebrated by the auto industry for creating a unified national program from a patchwork of varying state and federal standards. It prompted the industry to voluntarily dismiss lawsuits challenging California’s motor vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards, which were more stringent than federal standards when adopted a few years ago. With the compromise, California amended its regulations to match federal standards. Rising gas prices, the slowly deepening effects of rising gas prices on food and other consumer goods, and concern about air pollution all increased public involvement. In 2005, California and 16 other states sued the EPA for refusing to allow them to raise fuel economy standards beyond federal limits. Federal law can preempt state law.
Adopting fuel-efficient or alternative fuel technologies to meet the Clean Air Act standards would, in theory, save enormous amounts of gas and oil. A series of environmental disasters involving off shore oil drilling and ocean tankers in 2008 and 2009 may have pushed attention in the direction of acceptance. The sinking of the BP–Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico near Louisiana in April 2010 caused the Obama administration to halt its plans to expand off shore drilling pending further investigation. A major controversy over alternative fuel solutions is whether they would prevent further environmental degradation. Global warming controversies are also pushing this issue into the public view. Some contend the United States needs to do more in terms of addressing mobile emissions sources and their environmental impacts. The exploration of alternative fuels for vehicles can be controversial in terms of environmental impacts. The removal of lead from U.S. gasoline was a major step forward, not yet replicated around the world. It greatly reduced airborne lead emissions. However, with current standards and the volume of driving, assuming complete environmental compliance, U.S. vehicles would still emit 500,000 tons of smog-forming pollution every year.
The United States is among the leading nations for both pollution and pollution-control technology. Diesel-powered vehicles are major polluters. They emit almost 50 percent of all nitrogen oxides and more than two thirds of all particulate matter (soot) produced by U.S. transportation. Because the United States is more reliant on trucks (which tend to be diesel-fueled) for the shipment of goods and raw materials than other nations, diesel emissions can be large contributors to an air stream, along with many other pollutants. Some of these regulated pollutants are from industry and some from the environment.
The scale of diesel usage and its known emissions make it an environmental issue. Nitrogen oxides are powerful ingredients of acid rain. Acid rain can cause nitrogen saturation in crops and wilderness areas. Soot, regulated as particulate matter, irritates the eyes and nose and aggravates respiratory problems including asthma. Urban areas are often heavily exposed to diesel fumes. While diesel is a polluting fuel, regular unleaded gasoline can also pollute. Overall, the environmental impacts of the combustion engine remain largely undisputed. What is disputed is whether the environmental regulations go far enough to mitigate environmental impacts from these sources. The controversy about automobile energy efficiencies opens this aspect of the debate.
Commercial hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) models use both batteries and fuel. In the past few years they have been produced and marketed to the public. More recently, HEV drive trains have been used successfully in heavy-duty trucks, buses, and military vehicles.
Researchers also want to move HEV technology into a more sustainable lifestyle. They would like to produce and market plug-in hybrids that can plug in to household outlets. They want them to be able to store electricity and operate as clean, low-cost, low-environmental-impact vehicles for most of their normal daily mileage. Right now electric cars are limited by their batteries. Combining engines with them and using braking power to recharge the batteries does extend their range and power but also increases their emissions. Transportation is conceptualized as part of a environmental low impact and sustainable lifestyle. These communities unite plug-in hybrids, other low-impact transportation alternatives (bicycles, mass transit stops), zero-energy homes, a range of renewable energy technologies, and sustainable environmental practices. One example of such a community is the Pringle Creek Community in Salem, Oregon.
Hybrid Electric Vehicles
Hybrid electric vehicles, also known as HEVs, are an old idea renewed. In the early 1900s electric cars were popular for their quiet, but did not move as fast as gasoline-driven cars. Present-day hybrids combine both technologies: internal combustion engines and electric motors. The source of the fuel and the electricity may differ from model to model.
The biggest challenge plug-in hybrids face is that even the most rechargeable batteries lose the ability to hold a charge. They then become hazardous waste, There is also a financial and environmental cost to the use of electrical power. Much electrical power in the United States comes from coal-fired power plants. Companies such as Massy Coal are engaged in mountaintop removal practices to separate veins of coal from other rock. That process involves blowing off the top peaks of mountains and using chemicals such as arsenic and stricnine to loosen the coal. The process creates sludge laced with poison. It is filling rivers and lakes throughout Appalachia, where a large percentage of coal is mined in the United States. That is one environmental impact of using coal-fired electricity. Solar-powered batteries do not represent the same problem.
It is possible to recharge plug-in hybrid vehicles from renewable energy sources. Scientists are extensively researching thermal management, modeling, and systems solutions for energy storage. Scientists and engineers also are researching ways to increase the efficiency of the electrical power.
In addition, researchers seek to make the plug-in electric car reversible. In many areas homes and businesses can sell back energy they do not use or that they create. This is one way to protect the electric grid from brownouts, as well as conserve energy from nonrenewable resources. In hybrid vehicles it is called a vehicle-to-grid or V2G. These cars would have a two-way plug that allows the home and vehicle owner and local utility to exchange power back and forth. This could make the batteries accessible backup power in the event of a natural disaster or other power outage. It could also encourage citizens to buy new hybrid cars. Utilities pay for peak, backup, and unused power. Transportation analysts can quantify the potential value of such systems in terms of gas saved, air quality, and other measures. There could be substantial automobile energy efficiencies in these approaches, but many remain untried at a large level. Reversible electrical energy may not be much less environmentally harmful if the source of the electric power and the waste generated have harmful environmental impacts.
As research and conceptualization has moved HEVs into production, fuel-cell technology is taking shape. Hydrogen fuel cells have long been used to generate electricity in spacecraft and in stationary applications such as emergency power generators. Fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen and produce no harmful emissions. In fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs), hydrogen may be stored as a pressurized gas in on-board fuel tanks. The electricity feeds a storage battery (as in today’s hybrids) that energizes a vehicle’s electric motor.
An FCV may be thought of as a type of hybrid because its electric battery is charged by a separate on-board system. This underscores the importance of advancing presentday HEV technologies. HEVs help reduce petroleum consumption immediately and provide lessons about batteries, energy storage, fuel advancements, and complex electronic controls that may apply directly to future transportation technologies.
What Is Biodiesel?
Biodiesel is a catchall term used to describe fuel made from vegetable oil or animal fats. These fats are generally converted to usable fuel by a process called transesterification. Biodiesel fuels are usually mixed with conventional diesel. It is estimated that 140 billion gallons of biodiesel could replace all oil used for transportation in the United States. This is an enormous amount of biodiesel, which is creating controversy and innovation in the sources of biodiesel. Large-volume biodiesel use could raise concerns about land-use impacts common to all plant-based fuels. Are there enough plants, such as corn, to meet the fuel needs? Land-use impacts could be much larger if the market demand is driven by fuel needs. Alternative energy sources almost always include renewable energy sources such as solar power. Because most biodiesel is made from plant-based oils or waste-stream sources, it is a renewable fuel. Would there be enough of it?
Waste vegetable and animal fat resources are estimated to be able to produce a billion gallons of biodiesel per year. That prediction is considered speculative by some because it assumes adequate plant and waste production. Collecting the wastes, distilling and cleaning the fat from them, and using the resulting product as fuel can have environmental impacts. Farmers and proponents of biodiesel claim that distribution costs should go down as the first biodiesel stations begin operations and the price of petrochemicals increases. Use of more than a billion gallons per year of biodiesel would require more virgin plant oils and crops for biodiesel production. It would also require the discovery and organization of other waste-stream sources to meet larger demands. More land would be needed to plant necessary crops, such as corn. Crops grown for biodiesel can be grown in a manner that has negative environmental consequences for entire ecosystems. Just as in the case of other crops, they can require pesticides and may be genetically manipulated.
Biodiesel and Global Climate Change
One of the environmental advantages touted with biodiesel is that it has fewer environmentally degrading emissions. Critics have pointed out that biodiesel vehicles require more fuel depending on the mix and may have overall more combustion. Some biodiesel requires chemicals to start up when it is cold. Sometimes the vehicle must warm up to get the grease warm enough to flow. Pure 100 percent biodiesel results in large reductions in sulfur dioxide. However, it can cause 10 percent increases in nitrogen oxide emissions. A popular mix of biodiesel is about 80 percent biodiesel and 20 percent regular diesel, which increases the pollutants emitted proportionally. These pollutants are responsible for acid rain and urban smog. Biodiesel companies are beginning to operate service stations to distribute the fuel. There is controversy about its environmental impacts. Some tailpipe emissions are reduced. However, when the entire life of the vehicle is considered, running on 100 percent biodiesel, some smog-forming emissions can be 35 percent higher than those from conventional diesel.
Are There Other Environmental Attributes of Biodiesel?
One big concern and source of controversy are oil spills and their environmental impacts. Regular petrochemical spills can travel quickly in water and permeate land, depending on soil structure. Biodiesel is considered less harmful to the environment because it biodegrades four times faster than conventional diesel, so its environmental impacts are not as long-term or ecologically pervasive. It quickly degrades into organic components. Production of petroleum diesel creates much more hazardous waste than production of biodiesel. Biodiesel produces more overall waste depending on the source but generally twice as much as nonhazardous waste. Some of the nonhazardous wastes may be recyclable.
One developing source for biodiesel is algae, grown specifically for this purpose. The specialized algae are grown in a variety of ways. They are vastly easier to grow than most other crops and grow very quickly. While growing, they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Technological entrepreneurship is very much engaged in this, and algae strains are sometimes protected trade secrets. The species used now in the United States is Botryococcus braunii because it stores fat that is later used as fuel. The algae must then be broken down to separate fats from sugars. Solvents are used for this, which could be a source of environmental impacts depending on by-products and manufacturing waste streams. Fats cannot be cold pressed out of algae because they are too fragile and disintegrate. The fats are made into biodiesel. One issue is whether they could produce enough to meet demand for biodiesel from vehicles. Aquaflow, a New Zealand algae fuel company, says that it has achieved this.
Oil and Power: Impacts on Automobile Energy Efficiency
The primary resistance to increasing the efficiency of automobile and truck engines is the petrochemical industrial complex. Large oil companies are the backbone of U.S. industry and part of a thriving economy. They are multinational corporations that exert political power here and abroad. Some have revenues larger than those of most nations. Their only legal motivation is to make profit from dispensing a limited natural resource. Environmental and ecological integrity and consumer quality-of-life issues are not their concern. The oil industry has been a strong industrial stakeholder and exerted power at the local, state, and federal levels of government for almost a century. Many state legislatures have passed laws exempting oil companies from releasing their environmental audits or helping oil companies avoid compliance with environmental regulation or enforcement action. Oil companies are not responsive to community concerns and can litigate any issue with vast financial resources. The petrochemical industrial complex has also become part of social institutions such as foundations, churches, schools and universities, and athletic contests. Some employment opportunities, some infrastructure, and the hope of more economic development are offered to communities by oil companies.
Oil politics and the U.S. presidency are closely intertwined as both Bush presidents were major players in the oil industry in Texas and internationally with Saudi Arabia. Since George W. Bush was elected president in 2001, the top five oil companies in the United States have recorded record profits of $342.4 billion through the first quarter of 2006, while at the same time getting substantial tax breaks from a Republican Congress. This is extremely controversial, as gas prices have risen dramatically for most average citizens, and the national debt has gone from a surplus to a large deficit. With the controversial war in Iraq, an oil-producing nation, some people in the United States thought gas prices would decrease domestically. (They did not.) Oil company profit taking during times of natural disaster, such as hurricane Katrina, and war, has attracted much congressional attention. In one congressional hearing in 2006, major oil executives were subpoenaed to testify before Congress and refused to swear to tell the truth.
No oil company seems to be turning their profits into consumer savings. Some are just starting to research more alternative energy sources, but this is controversial. Some environmental groups have recently challenged this assertion. To many U.S. consumers it seems there is a direct correlation between record prices paid by consumers and record profits enjoyed by oil companies. From 1999 to 2004, the profit margin by U.S. oil refiners has increased 79 percent.
Political Controversy: Tax Breaks for Oil Campaign Contributions?
The search for automobile energy efficiency lies in the political maelstrom of the oil industry in Congress. President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress gave $6 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to oil companies in 2006 alone. This is in the face of large oil company profits. From 2001 to 2006 the oil industry gave $58 million in campaign contributions to federal politicians. Eighty-one percent of that went to Republicans. Given the awkward state of campaign financing, it is likely that these numbers would be much higher if travel and other expenses were included. Environmental groups, concerned communities, and taxpaying consumers have all protested this as corruption, misfeasance, and malfeasance in office.
Continued dependence on fossil fuels guarantees increased controversy. As oil becomes depleted, multinational oil corporations exert all their huge influence on the United States to protect their sources, even if it means going to war. The dissatisfaction of environmentalists and communities with the petrochemical industrial complex, the dependence and demand of the United States for oil, the lack of governmental support for alternative energy development, and the inability to keep large environmental impacts secret all fuel this raging controversy.
Robert William Collin and Debra Ann Schwartz
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