Senators Levin (Michigan) and Inhofe (Oklahoma) have recently introduced legislation to promote the adoption of natural gas vehicles( NGVs). While the nation would benefit from a greater effort between republicans and democrats to find common ground, this initiative would take us further down a road that should be less traveled. When legislation is introduced to replace or stimulate market forces, its best fate is the historical bin of bad ideas.
On the surface, this legislation would level the playing field of regulatory incentives for alternative fueled vehicles that currently are biased toward flexible fueled vehicles for purposes of meeting fuel efficiency requirements. Making a bad system—CAFÉ—a little less bad or more fair is not a particularly good idea.
In promoting this legislation, the two senators take liberties with facts by claiming that natural gas and dual fueled NGVs lead to lower maintenance costs and represent a more “efficient transportation fuel mix. Today’s gasoline powered vehicles have engines that last hundreds of thousands of miles and go more miles between oil changes than the engines of the 80s and 90s.
The claims being made for NGVs are at best exaggerated and don’t acknowledge that those vehicles cost at least $6000 more than their gasoline counterparts, have about half the trunk space because of the need for a much larger fuel tank, and travel about one-third the distance of an equivalent amount of gasoline. So, for the motorists the five-year cost is about double the cost of a gasoline powered vehicle.
The proposed legislation would require a study of a “financing option for building out natural gas refueling infrastructure” to address what the senators refer to as the “chicken-and-egg problem caused by not having a “robust refueling network around the country.” Henry Ford would have been surprised to be told that he wasn’t supposed to build automobiles that launched the mobility era before a refueling structure was in place. Repeated use of the “chicken and egg” analogy by politicians in Washington simply reveals their ignorance of how markets operate. If the benefits of NGVs or dual fueled NGVs are as great s they claim, private capital will be invested to develop the necessary infrastructure.
It is unfortunate that Senator Inhofe, who has stood tall in opposing misguided climate change legislation would align himself with those who advocate NGVs as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil imports. Both justifications are specious. No matter what the US does on emissions, global emissions will grow because of emerging economies striving to grow their economies. The oil import justification is built on a paradigm that was made obsolete by the North American oil and gas renaissance.
Once again proposed legislation is being driven by an illusion and not hard-headed facts.