Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Senate Bill Aimed at Alternative Transportation is Anything But Supportive of Alternative Transportation

Yesterday I read a short little blog post over at Eco Friendly Mag about a recently introduced Senate Bill (S. 1408) with the purpose of greatly expanding the incentives for investing in Natural Gas powered vehicles (NGV). The bill was introduced by Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from NJ.

The bill basically calls for huge tax credits to be lavished upon the buyers of NGVs. Credits would be available up to $80,000 for such vehicles while also giving a tax credit to the investment in new Natural Gas fueling stations. Thats a lot of money. The fact that the cap on the tax credit is so high makes me believe that this bill is mainly aimed at corporate fleets, which makes sense. Corporations with huge fleets incur correspondingly huge costs to maintain those fleets, and switching over to vehicles that pollute less - about 2/3 less smog and 1/3 less GHG - and get better gas mileage - although not much better - is a way to both save money and reduce the pollution coming out of millions of vehicles (in 2003 the 10 biggest fleet management companies managed 2.7 million vehicles).

We've all seen the T.V. ads by T. Boone Pickens, so we are most likely all familiar with the arguments in favor of NGVs. But is Natural Gas really a solution, or just an option that makes people feel like our Nation is working towards a solution without actually doing anything to alleviate our problems? And should we be listening to a guy with billions invested in the Natural Gas industry?

I would argue the former option. Based on the fact that American Natural Gas production - check out a great post at the Oil Drum - peaked back in the early 70's and prices have seen a dramatic increase in the last decade. A large increase of NGVs on the road would dramatically push prices higher and increase the speed with which Natural Gas supplies are depleted. Do we really want to go down another road similar to the one we went down with ethanol? We have spent billions investing in infrastructure to lesson our oil consumption and pollution only to find that it increases GHG and helps to contribute to food price inflation.

Can you even call Natural Gas an Alternative Fuel? While its not oil it is still a Fossil Fuel that is easily depleted, and once its gone, thats it. If we're truly looking for alternative fuels to lesson our dependence on oil, shouldn't we be looking for something that will have a lasting impact rather than a fuel that will only be available for a time span measured in decades?

Finally, the bill itself is titled "New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions." What about promoting NGVs make them a form of Alternative Transportation? Are they a form of Public Transportation? NO. Do they help to lesson traffic congestion? NO. Are they a predominately single occupancy vehicle that runs on fossil Fuels? YES.

The name of the of the bill is pure PR. Who the hell - besides me, I guess - actually reads through these things? All people are going to do is hear the name and think it promotes alternative transportation, which it doesn't. As I pointed out in a previous post, the term "alternative transportation" is one of those hot terms that has in the last few years seeped into our social conciseness, kind of like "synergy" invaded the business world about a decade ago.

Ultimately, are NGVs a solution? No. Are they one option in a myriad of options that must be explored and invested in so that we can overcome our Nation's oil dependence and transportation problems? Yes.


Rantwick said...

Critical thinking is good. Nice post.

Karl McCracken (twitter: @karlonsea) said...

It gets better - natural gas is methane, and about 4x as efficient as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Of course, I'm, like, totally sure that none would ever leek out during extraction, storage, distribution & vehicle fuelling.

Mark Kirschner said...

I agree, excellent post.

One major problem, and it's something that contributes to things like this, is alternative transportation is painted with an environmental brush. So many people look at it as "getting rid of the evil, oil burning car." Doing so ignores the fact that alternative transportation is needed to alleviate congestion on existing roadways and to better handle the growing populations in our urban centers and suburbs. In focusing on climate change, the coming of "peak oil" and similar issues, many look to hybrids, electrics, bio-fuels and other alternative fuels as the solution.

Honestly, as important as it is to end our dependence on oil and reduce our CO2 emissions, we need to look at the whole broken state of our transportation systems in the United States. We need to move people and goods in an efficient manner. As I sit on the bus on the highway, stuck in traffic, the personal auto is not doing it.

From an environmental standpoint, alternative fuels may be a good stepping stone. But they are not the end-all, be-all transportation solution we need. We'll still have single occupant vehicles on the roads (with dying batteries running heat/AC, radio and whatever else they do sitting in traffic). We need to get people out of cars and walking, cycling and taking transit. To do that we need to invest in the infrastructure, painting the current eyesore a different color and calling it fixed.

Mark Kirschner said...

Let me fix my last sentence:

To do that we need to invest in the infrastructure, not painting the current eyesore a different color and calling it fixed.

Doohickie said...

Maybe CNG is not the be-all end-all, but I think it is a step in the right direction.

To quote fellow blogger Rantwick, "none of the good things people might do are an all-or-nothing proposition. Making it out to be that way is a simple rationalization for not trying anything new at all."

Let's try something new. It may, eventually, lead to where we need to be.

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