Why cleaner cars make sense

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech to the Washington Public Interest Group in Seattle, on December 1, 2004.


Good evening. At 10:30 p.m., this is undoubtedly the latest engagement I have ever had on behalf of REP.

I believe you know me as the husband of Wendy DiPeso here. President Kennedy once said, when crowds in Europe went crazy over his glamorous wife, that he was the man who accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I’m the man who accompanies Wendy.

REP was founded in 1995 by three strong-willed women, one of whom is still our president. They saw the need for an organization for people who vote Republican or consider themselves Republican, and who also care a lot about the environment.

For most of our nation’s history, the environment was not a partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats provided leadership in this area. Many of our national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges were established by Republicans, including the largest refuge, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which was established by President Eisenhower in one of his last acts in office.

Clean air and cleaner cars is an issue you’re focusing on. The Clean Air Act was one of 37 proposals that Richard Nixon submitted to Congress on Jan. 1, 1970. He chose the date deliberately, saying it was time to start cleaning up our environment, that it’s now or never.

We’ve made a lot of progress cleaning up cars since the 1970s. Today’s cars are much cleaner than cars built in the 1960s. But we’re offsetting that progress by driving more and longer distances.

Two of the air pollutants that we need to work harder at reducing are NOx – nitrogen oxides – and reactive hydrocarbons. They’re called reactive hydrocarbons because that’s they do. They are a gregarious set of chemicals that react with NOx in the presence of sunlight to create ozone.

Up way above, ozone is good. It keeps out ultraviolet rays that are harmful. At ground level, ozone is a respiratory hazard. Ozone can cause premature aging of the lung by embrittling the tissues. Ozone can trigger asthma attacks and lead to chronic bronchitis.

Ozone is harmful to plants. Eight of our national parks, including Sequoia, Great Smoky Mountains, and six others, violate federal ozone standards, if you can imagine such a thing.

A recent, EPA-funded study of daily ozone levels in 95 cities shows that elevated ozone levels are associated with higher mortality from respiratory, cardiovascular, and other diseases. In other words, ozone can kill.

I grew up in southern California and I know what ozone smog is like. When we went out for physical education classes in high school, the coaches would send us out on the 12-minute run and the 600-yard run. It hurt to breathe. I remember that well. It’s one of the few things about high school that I do remember, but you can make of that what you will.

Under the Clean Air Act, California has unique authority to set its own motor vehicle emissions standards. The state has used that authority effectively to force technology improvements. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments allowed other states to adopt California standards if they so choose. Six states in the Northeast have done so and that’s what the Clean Cars for Washington Act would do. We would join the Northeastern states in adopting California car standards.

Tailpipe standards are technically complex, but very generally, California standards are stronger and take effect sooner than EPA standards.

There are other wrinkles in the California program that encourage the production and sale of super-clean hybrid-electric vehicles. Does everyone here know what a hybrid car is? Actually, the concept has been known for many years. Basically, it’s a clever way of coupling an electric motor to a gasoline engine in order to improve overall efficiency. The electric motor, which is very efficient, gives an extra boost when you need extra power to pass or climb a hill. So, hybrid cars on the market today can give you 55 miles per gallon. That’s incredible. We have a little Honda out there that on its best days can only give you 40 to 45 miles per gallon.

As a nation, we’ve been going backwards on fuel efficiency. Average efficiency of new vehicles is at a 20-year low. That’s because vehicles are bigger and heavier, so when you’re carrying all that iron around, you have to burn more fuel. It’s just basic physics.

Fuel efficiency helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. Every gallon of gasoline you burn sends 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it stays for 100 years warming the climate.
Global warming will result in very serious risks. Here in the Northwest, we may lose half our snowpack over the next 50 years. That means much more than just reduced skiing. Snowpack is our free water storage reservoir. Less snowpack means less water in the summer for irrigation, people and fish.

Other parts of the world face other risks. Low-lying coastal areas in Florida and Louisiana face rising sea levels, for example. Louisiana is losing coastal wetlands at the rate of 1.5 football fields an hour, partly as a result of rising sea levels. Small island nations in the Pacific face the prospect of disappearing completely.
Another good reason for improving fuel efficiency is energy security.

Today, we use 20 million barrels of oil a day in the United States. About 40 percent, or 8 million barrels, is used for motor gasoline. Almost 60 percent of total oil use is imported.

Now, some say that the best way to lower our dependence on foreign oil is to drill more oil wells in this country, even in special places such as the Arctic refuge. Aside from the moral turpitude of opening a wildlife sanctuary to a heavy industrial activity, this strategy is, in a word, stupid.

First, drilling in the Arctic wouldn’t do much to reduce foreign oil dependence. A Department of Energy study recently estimated that opening the refuge to full production would lower the foreign share of oil usage from 70 percent to 66 percent by 2025. Four percentage points. Big deal.

Fundamentally, our problem with oil is a supply-and-demand problem. It’s important to understand that oil is traded in a global market. Price and supply conditions are affected by events anywhere in the world. So, if you have a riot in Venezuela, a strike in Nigeria, or a pipeline bombing in Saudi Arabia, that “fear premium” shows up in the price at the pump at the corner gas station.

The oil market is very tight because demand is outrunning supply – our demand, China’s demand, everyone’s demand.

The dirty little secret in the oil business is that new oilfield discoveries are not keeping up with rising demand.

There’s no way to drill our way out of this problem. America has only 3 percent of global reserves. Two-thirds of global reserves are in five nations surrounding the Persian Gulf.

Adding a slug of Arctic oil to the global supply pool isn’t going to fix this systemic supply-and-demand problem. All it will do is perpetuate and expand our dependence on oil and keep us chasing our tails. Opening the Arctic refuge, or the Rocky Mountain Front, or Otero Mesa or the Roan Plateau or other special places in the West won’t solve the problem.

The only way to get off this treadmill is to lower demand and start phasing in new transportation and fuel technologies, such as fuel cells, cellulosic ethanol, or even advanced batteries. Interesting things are happening in the battery world. Hybrid-electric vehicles, the kind the Clean Cars for Washington Act would bring to our state, are a great way to start this necessary transition.

Let me give you a personal perspective on what’s at stake.

In August, I was privileged to join a party that visited the Arctic refuge for three days. We rafted down the Canning River, and it was an unforgettable experience.

I brought some pictures of this very special place to share with you. Now, those who want to drill there call it a wasteland, just to make it seem OK to drill there. That’s just not true. The Arctic refuge is a wonderful place. Nearly 200 species of migratory birds visit the refuge from every continent. The refuge is home to bears, wolves, foxes, moose, musk oxen, flowering plants, and all kinds of less celebrated creatures. It’s a vast, silent place where you can experience the original wildness of our world on an epic scale. The Arctic refuge is every bit as special as better known places such as Yosemite or the Everglades

The words that Theodore Roosevelt spoke at the Grand Canyon in 1903 are apropos for the Arctic refuge in 2004:

“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. Keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you.”